Carbohydrate is a big, and somewhat intimidating word. Let’s break it down a bit: “carbo” means carbon, “hydr” means hydrogen, and “ate” means oxygen.
These are the building blocks that make up this essential body fuel. This is the first type of energy you use before your body begins to burn any alcohol, fat, or proteins.
Now let’s get one thing straight
Not all carbs are created equal. There are simple carbs, like the sugar-filled cream puffs made of refined flour pictured here
And then there are complex carbohydrates, the kind we find in legumes, nuts, or fruit.
Here’s the deal
Our bodies run on the nutrients we put in them. One of these nutrients is carbohydrates and they are essential to the function of our mind and directly affect our levels of energy. Your body will not function without the intake of carbohydrates. If you do not eat enough carbs to properly fuel yourself at the level of activity you are operating at, your body will physically begin to consume your own muscle mass to find enough carbs to survive. This is why carb-cutting and low or “no” carb diets can look like they are working but in fact, they are not. Crash dieting has sometimes quite swift visual results because you have begun devouring yourself from within to feed the machine that is your body’s survival, but this is not healthy.
Most sources recommend nearly half of your dietary intake be made up of carbs for you to function properly as a human on a day to day basis. Especially if you are working out, thinking hard, or undertaking any sort of strenuous activity, you need carbs to immediately burn to be able to do so effectively and stay energized. Otherwise, your performance will decrease, and you will become fatigued, putting yourself in danger of injury. If you do not eat enough carbohydrates, you will begin to dissolve your own muscle to use the carbs stored there. Not only are carbs essential fuel for your entire body, but they are also the food for the community of bacteria that lives in your gut and is in charge of proper digestive processing.
Complex carbohydrates are nutritious and are beneficial in sustaining energy. They also keep blood sugar levels from spiking and dropping. As a general rule, beneficial carbs like legumes, fruits, starch filled vegetables (potatoes), and whole grains have a high content of fiber, can be digested slowly, and are ALWAYS unprocessed, so the naturally occurring nutrients have not been stripped away. High protein carbs include dairy, yogurt and legumes as well. For nutrient-dense foods that are high in complex carbs which is most important for muscle gain, try peas, lentils, corn, sweet potatoes, quinoa, oats, and squash. Unhealthy carbs are also known as low fiber carbs and these are digested quickly and cause immediate sugar spikes; these include sugary drinks, candy, and refined grains.
If you are concerned about body fat, and belly fat, in particular, pay attention to the point about substituting un-processed grains for any processed grains in your diet. The Journal of Nutrition has shared research directly correlating this replacement with resulting body fat levels.
The point about high fiber levels is worth revisiting. Eating foods high in soluble fiber is known to directly affect cholesterol levels, which helps to maintain a healthy heart. Carbohydrates are brain food and boost your mood by promoting serotonin production.
The complex carbs we’ve covered here, the kind that is slower to digest, help to keep insulin levels moderated, which in turn tells your body that you are “safe” and do not need to store any more fat. Take stock of where the carbohydrates are coming from in your daily diet. Consult the list above, and consider making the substitutions suggested below to optimize your healthy carb intake and limiting the damaging simple carbs as much as possible.
Replace refined grains with minimally processed grains, or even better, with whole grains. Substitute popcorn for potato chips to feed that snack attack need for stuffing your face by the slightly salted handful. Choose brown rice over white rice. The same goes for bread products. And remember, if you can’t read the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t be eating it.