In Defense of Carbohydrates
Updated: Apr 16
The diet and wellness industry has been known to point an accusing finger at carbohydrates for issues related to weight gain, inflammation, diabetes, and digestion. The newest trending diets (hello, keto) recommend reducing your carbohydrate intake to 5 to 10 percent of your total diet. In the interest of self-preservation, this investigation is focused on the defense of carbohydrates and the benefits of keeping them as a part of our diet.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans describe carbohydrates as one of the main macronutrients and sources of energy in the American diet. They also advise that carbohydrates make up anywhere from 45% to 65% of our total diets.
To better understand the role carbohydrates play in our bodies, let’s start our investigation by looking at what happens when we eat a simple piece of white bread.
The Classic White Vs. Wheat Debate
When you eat a piece of white bread, your body converts its carbohydrates into glucose. That glucose travels through the bloodstream. From there, your body’s cells convert glucose into energy. This energy, in the form of ATP, is used to support brain and bodily functions, as well as physical activity.
So carbohydrates, when digested, turn into sugar. If you read our previous article on sugar, you are probably thinking, “Oh, no! I cut out sugar, and now you want me to give up carbs?!” It turns out that, the sugar in white bread is similar to plain old sugar. It is absorbed quickly and provides us with a quick energy boost. Also, like sugar, white bread does not have much nutritional value.
Whole wheat bread, on the other hand, is digested differently. Whole wheat foods contain complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are made up of a chain of sugars, instead of single units. This complexity means that they are absorbed slower and the energy created from them is released in a slower, more controlled manner. This is why would feel fuller for longer after eating complex carbohydrates than you would after eating simple ones.
The most important distinction is that complex carbohydrates supply the body with nutrients alongside the sugar. Whole wheat bread is higher in fiber, vitamins B6 and E, magnesium, zinc, folic acid, and chromium.
Fiber, in particular, is extremely important for a healthy diet and digestion. People with a high-fiber diet have been known to suffer from fewer heart attacks and strokes, and are at a lower risk of developing heart disease. It also helps maintain or even lose weight, since it keeps you feeling full for longer.
When white flour is refined, most of the fiber and nutrients are stripped from it. A few are added back in but in low quantities. So that you would have to eat eight pieces of white bread to get the nutrients of one piece of wheat bread.
Choosing complex carbohydrates over simple can make a huge difference. Foods like potatoes, whole-wheat pasta, and bread, brown rice, and oats, contain complex carbohydrates that help aid recovery after a workout. They reintroduce sugars that are stored as glycogen while providing nutrients and fiber to aid digestion.
As you examine your relationship with carbohydrates, focus on the type of carbohydrate you consume most often. Take note of your energy level directly after eating simple carbohydrates, and an hour later. Do the same experiment with complex and compare the difference.
Know that simple does not necessarily mean bad. Fruits and vegetables contain simple carbohydrates. However, their sugars are easier for our bodies to digest than processed white sugar. Fruits also supply essential vitamins and nutrients that are hard to get elsewhere.
A Note About Going Carbohydrate-Free
We are all living in different bodies, with unique cravings, challenges, and digestive-systems. As you explore your relationship with carbohydrates, let us assure you that eating carbohydrates is not unhealthy. However, if you find that you do not like the way you feel after eating both complex and simple, know that going carbohydrate-free is an option.
If you stop eating carbohydrates, your body goes into a keto-adaptive state where your body doesn’t rely as heavily on sugars as a source of energy. So when your body needs energy, it seeks out your stored sugars and burns through those instead.
When those stores run low, the body creates energy by breaking down amino acids from proteins or extracting chemicals from fat called ketones. This process is called gluconeogenesis.
The most crucial consideration if you start cutting things out of your diet is to be mindful. Closely monitor how your body reacts to the change. For most people, carbohydrates are the best way to give your body quick, ready energy. Cutting out carbohydrates could leave you feeling listless and unmotivated.
Being healthy starts with self-awareness and that means getting in sync with your body’s signals.
Let us know about your relationship with carbohydrates. What are your favorite healthy carbs? Have you ever gone carb-free? How did it feel?
As always, if you need any advice, please let me know. I am here for you.