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Almost everyone has heard of carbohydrates (“carbs”). They get a pretty bad rap, especially recently. But, this demonizing of carbs has been blown out of proportion. In a balanced diet, we need carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential for neurological function, muscle function, hormone production and cellular metabolism. This is because our body runs on glucose (sugar). Every cell in the body uses glucose (a type of carbohydrate, which is also a sugar) to function. All carbohydrates, regardless of their type, are converted to glucose in our bodies and either then either used immediately for energy, or stored as glycogen in our muscles or liver.

Examples of sugars that you probably eat everyday:

  • Glucose (circulates in our blood)

  • Fructose (honey and fruit)

  • Galactose (dairy)

  • Sucrose (cane sugar and beets)

  • Maltose (malt)

  • Lactose (glucose and galactose found in milk)

Under certain circumstances, our body can convert protein or fat into glucose, but this occurs through an “expen$ive” process. By expen$ive, I mean that it takes energy to make energy. The process to create glucose from fat or protein requires twice as much energy as it does to make glucose into usable energy. That's some serious $$$!


Wait, wait, wait, carbs make you fat right?

No! To review from last week, no, carbs alone do not make you fat. Anything in excess can be converted and stored as adipose (fat tissue), and that includes but is not limited to carbs alone.

But, there are some carbs that we want you to have more of and some carbs that we want you to have less of. The main reason for this is that it is easier to eat more processed carbohydrates. They are prolific in the standard American diet. Just walk into a convenience store, you will see chips, cookies, crackers, candy, soda, sweet tea, and the list goes on. They contain a boatload of sugar, and contain less micronutrients and fiber as well. 

However, let's look at the big picture. Without carbohydrates, our muscle, neurological, hormonal, and other essential functions will be thrown off. It’s challenging to be active without sufficient carbohydrates, and avoiding them can lead to missing out on key nutrients and fibers (continue reading). We NEED carbohydrates.

Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. When you have a diet high in processed sugars and overall excessive energy (calories), and limited activity, your body does not need those easily broken down simple carbs for quick energy because you are always in an energy surplus.

When there is sufficient energy in the body, the liver and muscles store glucose as a compound called glycogen. But, this storage capacity is limited, and when it is exceeded, the liver begins converting glycogen into triglycerides (fat). This can cause many complications in the body, such as high cholesterol and an increase such as visceral fat, which is a build up of adipose tissue around the  internal organs.

Over time, the effects of excessive energy (all calories - not just carbs) and increased fat stores can lead to hormone disruption, especially insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Normally, the pancreas is signaled to produce insulin when blood sugar increases (anytime when we eat). The insulin then goes around the body to “pick up” the blood glucose and it then transports it to the muscles or liver.

When there is excess fat, insulin signaling is interrupted, which means that it your body has to produce more insulin to lower blood sugar. Imagine trying to yell to your friend across the room, then add about 100 people. It is much harder to get your message across and you have to yell a lot louder. All of this causes a cascade of events which decreases your cells’ ability to respond to insulin (decreased insulin “sensitivity”) and places you at risk for diabetes, a chronic disease that affects every system in the body.

But as always, it can be more complicated. Your body’s response to sugar and carbs in general is determined by many factors, such as:

  • Time of day

  • Medications

  • Sleep

  • Genetics and family history

  • Gut bacteria

  • Fiber, fat and protein content of meal (that is why we started with balance last week).

  • Activity level

Whew! All of that is to say that simply asking “are carbs good (or bad)” or “will carbs make me fat?” or “will low carb make me lose weight / perform better / [insert nutritional aspiration here]?” misses the point. Carbohydrates are an entire class of nutrient, and should be viewed in context of the foods that contain them and you as an individual.

But it is helpful to understand more about carbohydrates, as there are some types that we generally want to eat more of, and others that we want to eat less of.


Structure dictates function: Simple and complex carbs

What makes a carb a carb? Well, carbohydrates are molecules that are classified by their chain-like structure. To keep things easy, because who wants to really go back to chemistry class, let’s group carbohydrates into two categories, simple and complex. These designations are based on the length of their chain-like structure.

Simple carbs are only 1 or 2 links long, also known as monosaccharides and disaccharides. Compared to other molecules, a simple carbohydrate is smaller, has fewer chemical bonds to be broken. This means that they digest more quickly, and allow your body to access that sugar quickly.

Examples of simple carbs:

  • Glucose ( circulates in our blood)

  • Fructose (honey and fruit)

  • Galactose (dairy)

  • Sucrose (cane sugar and beets)

  • Maltose (malt)

  • Lactose (glucose and galactose found in milk)

Complex carbohydrates are longer chained molecules and have more >2 sugars linked together. These are longer chains of carbohydrates that take longer to digest. They are also characterized by having some type of fiber associated with them, such as inulin, cellulose, or ligans. You can generally think of them as your whole grains and unprocessed starches, like whole oats, quinoa, and potatoes.


Simple carbs: Not so simple after all?

Simple carbohydrates require less digestion than complex carbohydrates because they are already in a smaller-chain form, and because they lack fiber. A diet high in simple carbohydrates (sugar, processed breads, and flour products, etc), means that the body has a readily accessible energy source. However, the system can be easily overloaded with too many simple carbohydrates at once, especially given their abundance in our food system. When they build up in excess, they can cause elevations in blood triglyceride levels (fat), and other problems, as described above. On the other hand, simple carbs play a HUGE role in the athletes diet, particularly endurance athletes who need quick energy sources during long training sessions or races.

Examples of simple carbs:

  • White bread

  • White crackers

  • White rice

  • Sugar

  • White pasta

  • Donuts

  • Cookies

  • Candy

  • Honey

  • Juice

  • Fried things

  • You get the picture.


Complex carbs: There’s more to the story

Complex carbohydrates are digested and absorbed more slowly because they are higher in fiber (more on this in the coming weeks). Complex carbohydrates also yield more micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), because they are in their whole form and have not been processed. For example, prior to processing, whole grains have their hull, bran and germ, which is rich in fiber, B vitamins (essential in converting carbohydrates to usable energy), iron, magnesium and selenium.

Examples of complex carbs:

  • Brown rice

  • Quinoa

  • Whole fruit

  • 100% whole wheat bread if GF choose brown rice bread

  • Rolled oats

  • Potatoes (yes, you can eat these)

  • Acorn squash

  • Corn

  • 100% whole wheat pasta

  • Beans and legumes

For most people, inclusion of complex carbohydrates is an essential part of a balanced diet, and helps with overall energy, digestion, and essential body functions.


in conslusion:

To sum up that big info bomb: Carbs are not the enemy. There are some really great sources of carbohydrates and it all comes down to balance. Remember the building block balance concept from last week. There is not necessarily an upper limit of carbohydrates nor is there a lower limit. Carbohydrate needs can be individualized based on genetics (how you process food), activity, hormones and body composition, but most people do better with a moderate amount of complex carbohydrates in their diet, and a limited amount of simple carbohydrates.

So this week, I want you to focus on getting all of your carbohydrates from whole grains or starchy vegetables - complex carbohydrates from the list above.

This means cutting out added sugar and processed grains, and replacing them with complex carb sources. This is a challenge to see and feel the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates. After this week, you can add small amounts of simple carbs back in -- we are against removing anything entirely or forever (it's all about balance) -- but it is helpful to challenge yourself from time to time.

Start with about 1 cupped (1ish handful) per meal. If you feel like you are crashing between meals, consider adding more. If you feel bloated, or like you are missing out on other building blocks consider a little less. Remember the mindfulness bit from a few weeks back… keep doing that and listen to your body.

Oh yeah, and keep drinking water!


Concerned or confused about nutrition? Not sure if your current nutritional habits are helping you meet your goals? Feel free to pop in Abby's office, schedule an appointment, or shoot her an email at abby@evolveflg.com