Now that you have a better understanding of the importance of protein
, the next topic in this series is carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, aka carbs, are the second essential element that must be incorporated into a healthy diet.
By essential, I do mean ESSENTIAL. Carbohydrates provide most of the energy needed for our daily activities like walking, climbing stairs, and running as well as for normal body functions including heartbeat, breathing, and digestion.
They also play an important role in proper development and growth, our immune system, and blood clotting. There is no need to be fearful of carbs, the trick is learning about the different types.
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, the same amount as protein if you remember from Part 1
of this series. There are two types of carbohydrates, simple carbs and complex carbs.
Without getting too scientific on you, I am going to breifly describe the difference between the two. Simple Carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates, or simple sugars, consist of a single sugar molecule (monosaccharide) or two single sugar molescules linked together (disaccharide).
Examples of the most common simple carbs are glucose, fructose, sucrose, and lactose. Glucose (aka blood sugar to those who have diabetes or hypoglycemia) is the most common form of sugar.
It is the primary type that is stored in the body for energy. Fructose is the type of sugar in fruit, honey, and the dreaded high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Sucrose is found in sugar cane or sugar beets and is refined to make granulated table sugar, which includes white, brown, and powdered sugar.
Lactose is the form of sugar found in dairy products. Simple carbs digest quickly, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. The body then responds by releasing large quantities of insulin in order to corral the glucose from the bloodstream into the cells so that it can be used for energy.
When you eat simple sugars, and this rapid rise occurs, your body tends to freak out and overreact, sending too much insulin into the bloodstream. This allows it to quickly get the glucose into the cells, which then causes a dramatic drop in blood sugar.
Along with this rapid drop comes increased hunger, cravings, fatigue, and mood swings. You can see how this could lead to a cycle of neverending highs and lows if you proceed to eat more simple carbs throughout the day.
The majority of the simple carbs that your typical American consumes are from processed foods such as soda, cookies, chips, etc. These foods are what are known as “empty calories”, or foods that provide a large amount of calories but little to no nutritional value.
STAY AWAY from processed foods, I can’t stress that enough. Examples of Healthy Foods Containing Simple Carbohydrates
- Nonfat or lowfat milk
- Nonfat or lowfat yogurt
- Nonfat or lowfat cheese
Complex carbs, or polysaccharides, are composed of simple sugars formed into long chains called polymers. These chains take much longer to digest than simple carbohydrates, so they have a much more modest effect on blood sugar levels.
Complex carbs are also packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and photochemicals. There are two types of complex carbohydrates: starch and fibrous.
- Starch represents the main type of digestible complex carb. The human body is able to completely digest the caloric energy in starchy carbs, which makes them more calorically dense than fibrous carbs. Some examples of starches are potatoes, oats, grains, bread, pasta, and beans.
- Fibrous carbohydrates are the indigestible part of the plant that cannot be broken down by the human body, and is therefore passed along to the large intestine without the caloric energy being absorbed. For this reason, fibrous carbs are considered to be low in calorie density. They are a very important part of a healthy diet as they keep us full longer and promote a healthy digestive tract by “scrubbing” the walls of our intestines as they move through. Fiber is found in some starchy carbs such as oats, grains, and beans, however vegetables are what is typically refered to as “fibrous carbohydrates”.
Complex carbohydrates contain high amounts of fiber, which slows down absorbsion and helps to stablize blood sugar and insulin levels. This means that complex carbs provide sustained energy without the peaks and valleys in blood sugar and energy levels produced by consuming simple carbs.
Soluable fiber (dissolves in water), found in oats, barley, and beans, may aid in reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. Insoluable fiber (does not dissolve in water) is found in most peels and skins of the foods we eat.
A combination of both types of fiber is best for a healthy diet, and well, healthy intestines. They both play a key role in going #2 everyday, and yes you should be going every single day...more than once a day at that, but that is a whole article in itself.
For these reasons, complex carbs should make up the majority of your carbohydrate calories. Examples of Healthy Foods Containing Complex Carbohydrates
- Whole Barley
- Oat Bran
- Oatmeal (rolled oats are best)
- Wild Rice
- Brown Rice
- 100% Whole Wheat Bread
- Black Beans
- Kidney Beans
If you are insulin resistant (diabetic or hypoglycemic), its best to stay away from simple carbohydrates due to the reaction they cause with insulin levels. In order to keep your body happy and healthy, you should stick to fibrous and starchy carbs for your carbohydrate intake.
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest dairy products. When the body lacks the enzymes to properly digest lactose, the result is gas, cramping, bloating, water retention, and sometimes even diarrhea when dairy products are consumed.
If you eat dairy products and regularly have any of these symptoms, its best to remove dairy from the diet, and use lactose free versions, if desired. So why did carbs get a such a bad rap?
In the 80s it was discovered that dietary fat was more calorically dense than carbohydrates (fat has 9 calories per gram versus carbohydrates weighing in at 4 calories per gram), and that when dietary fat was removed from a person’s diet, they consequentially ate less calories overall.
People thought that all they had to do was remove the fat from their diet in order to lose weight. What they didn’t realize is that if they stuck with unrefined naturally low-fat foods, yes they would lose weight.
But most people did not do that. What we quickly ended up with was shelves upon shelves of refined, calorie dense foods but yet “low-fat”. The choices were endless. So a diet that should have been naturally reduced in calories, was replaced with calorically dense “low-fat” counterparts, causing people to either not lose weight or even gain weight.
Essentially the fat was removed, and sugar was added to make up for the loss of flavor. How many carbs should I be eating per day?
This depends on your goals and total calorie intake, but in general, 30-50% of your daily intake of carbohydrates is a healthy range to shoot for. So, for example, if your daily calorie intake is 2000 calories, and say you are aiming for 40% carbs, then 2000 multiplied by 40% is 800 calories worth of carbohydrates.
We don’t stop there though. You would then divide 800 calories by 4 (carbs are 4 calories per 1 gram) which would give you 200 grams of carbohydrates per day. Note: If you would like to learn how to figure out your daily calorie allowance, either for fat loss or for maintenance, click here
Now you are wondering, hey what about low carb diets? Well, to keep this short and sweet, it has been found by numerous studies that going below 30% carbohydrates in your diet can cause a sleu of problems, from loss of period for women, lowered testosterone in men, brain fog, and more. In my opinion, you can achieve the same results more safely and sanely, with a moderate incorporation of the right kind of carbs.
What types of carbs are the best to eat?
There is no one answer to this question because it depends on many things like what time of day it is, if you just worked out, if you are diabetic, etc.
The general, overarching answer is... stick to whole foods whenever possible. Meaning stay away from the processed, packaged junk, and eat foods that are close to nature, i.e. fruits, veggies, whole grains, rice, for overall wellness. Its ok to have a “treat” once in a while, but keep the majority of your calorie intake to whole foods.
The best time of day to eat simple carbs is paired with protein (of course) in the morning, when your liver glycogen levels are low, or immediately following your workout (again paired with protein), when your body needs the simple sugar to shuttle the protein into your muscles quickly.
In general, its best to eat the majority of your simple/starchy carbs in the morning and then switch to fibrous carbs (veggies) later in the day. This way, your body has a chance to burn off the simple/starchy carbs during the day, and you are not loading up right before bed.
I will discuss this in further detail, later in the series, when we put it all together and talk about food pairing. Special Note on Fat Loss
Fruit is loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
However if fat loss is your goal, limit fruit to 1-2 servings per day as it does contain fructouse, a simple sugar. Aim to get the rest of your carbohydrate intake for the day from fibrous veggies (spinach, broccoli) and starches (oatmeal, sweet potatoes, wild rice).
Fruit juice consumption should also be reduced or eliminated while on a fat loss diet, because juice is much more calorie dense than whole fruit and has little to no fiber. Next up in this series is Part 3
on fats. The GOOD, the bad, and the ugly! Internet Resources
- American Diabetes Association
“Nutrition Fact Sheets: Carbohydrates.”Northwestern University, Department of Preventitive Medicine.
“Be Choosy About Carbs.” UC Berkley Wellness Letter.