By Kayleigh Caito
Let’s start with a simple quiz question. True or false: Carbs are bad.
If you said false, then you are correct! But do you know why?
Carbohydrates are found in many different foods. They are in your vegetables, fruits, grains (rice, wheat, barley), dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), baked goods (breads, bagels, cakes, cookies), and sweets (chocolate, brownies, candy, etc.). As you can see from a few items on the list above, some of these are healthier options, and others have very little nutritional value, other than straight sugar!
Carbohydrates are a very important part of a well balanced diet. They are the main source of fuel for the brain and muscles. So what does this mean? For starters, it means without carbs, the brain would not function properly. The brain burns more carbohydrates during intense brain activity.
During exercise, the body first uses carbs as energy. The carbohydrates in food are broken down into glucose, which is the preferred source of fuel for the muscles. If there is not a sufficient amount of carbs in the body during exercise, the body will get energy from other sources, such as fat and protein. It is more difficult for the body to break down fat and protein for energy, so they are not as favorable sources of energy as carbs.
Carbohydrates can be broken into two groups: simple and complex carbs.
Simple carbs are primarily made up of, simply, sugar. This simple sugar is usually in the form of a monosaccharide or a single sugar molecule. Some examples of monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, and galactose. Disaccharides, or molecules made up of two of the monosaccharides are also considered to be simple sugars. Some examples of disaccharides are lactose, sucrose, and maltose. These sugars are found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, and, of course, table sugar. Simple carbohydrates are easily broken down in the body due to their simple structure. This means that they are typically used as the first source of fuel in the body. It is important to eat nutritious sources of simple sugars such as vegetables, fruits, and dairy. Since they are broken down quickly, they do not keep us full as long, which is why we must balance with some complex carbs, protein, and fat.
Complex carbs are the other group of carbohydrates, known as polysaccharides. A polysaccharide is a large chain of monosaccharide molecules linked together. This is also known as a starch. Complex carbs take the body longer to break down due to their large structure. This means they can be used as a fuel source longer than a simple carb, which keeps you full longer. Complex carbs can be found in foods such as whole grains, starchy vegetables, and even in refined grains. Refined grains should seldom be eaten because they are refined. What this means is the grain is already partially broken down, which means our bodies do not have to do it. Wait! Why is that a bad thing? We want our bodies to have to do most of the work to breakdown our food because it takes longer, and keeps us full. Also, we burn calories by working hard to breakdown whole grains!
I want to add in a quick note about fiber: Fiber is very important because the body cannot digest it. Wait, why is this a good thing? Our body works extra hard to try to break down the fiber, which keeps us full and burns more calories! Sounds familiar, right? Much like a complex carbohydrate. So, where do you think fiber comes from? You guessed it! Whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. Yet another reason to eat these foods!
So, after all that information, you may be wondering, “What the heck should I be eating as a source of carbohydrates?” The answer is not so black and white. But put simply, eat mostly vegetables, fruits, and whole grains because these are full of simple and complex carbs, but also importantly, full of nutritious vitamins and minerals! Veer away from processed grains (white bread for example), baked goods, and sweets. Of course, I understand you may go crazy if you think you can never eat a cookie again. The key to this is eating these indulgences in moderation. So, maybe don’t eat the whole pint of ice cream in one sitting, but rather a few bites for taste. It will curb those cravings without making you feel guilty (and maybe a little sick) after.