Published on March 29th, 2013 | by Joe Starks0
Know Your Substances: Carbohydrates
In recent years the booming diet industry has put most of the blame for the world’s expanding waistlines on carbohydrates. Some diets ban them altogether as if they were the food devil incarnate and others recommend restraint when consuming them. We often hear they are utterly useless to our bodies, that they cause damage to our health and addict us to bad food. What of all this is true though? Are there “good” carbohydrates? Do we need them at all? What happens if you choose to ban carbohydrates from your diet altogether? Bellow we will look at these points one by one.
What are Carbohydrates?
Simply put, carbs (short for carbohydrates) are compounds which include carbon and also include hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio they are found in water, which is 2 to 1. There are few exceptions of compounds being called carbohydrates without them actually having the water ratio of hydrogen and oxygen. They easily form bonds with each other and release quite a bit of energy when metabolized. All carbohydrates are saccharides, a word meaning sugar in Greek. There are simple carbs and there are complex carbs which form when many simple carbs form bonds together. You can have sugars formed by one, two, three or whole chains of simple sugars.
The body uses carbohydrates for energy. Some tissues, mainly in the nervous system, prefer glucose (a simple carbohydrate) over all other types of energy-giving molecules. When the brain does not get its glucose the body will use proteins and fats to form glucose, which causes a lot of waste products to be created which are called ketones. If your body has many ketones in its bloodstream then you are going through ketosis, a non-lethal yet taxing metabolic state. This is why diets that ban all carbohydrates are also called ketonogenic.
Not all carbs are sweet in taste. For instance starch, which is the way plants accumulate extra carbs, has a neutral taste (imagine a potato’s taste).
When the body receives an excess load of carbs, it will store them in a form called glycogen. Gltcigen is usually stored in the liver and muscles. Having enough glucogen stores is important for people who exercise a lot or are going through an illness.
Are there “good” and “bad” carbohydrates?
No actually there aren’t. There is a widely held belief that complex carbohydrates release glucose slower into the bloodstream, but there are simple carbs like fructose that release much slower than some complex carbs.
The trick with carbs is to portion them well and according to your needs. If you are a sedentary person you do not need a lot of sugars. In this case you only need enough to keep your glycogen storages full and a little bit extra for your brains and muscles.
If you are an athlete you absolutely have to add more carbs to your diet. Muscles that don’t have glycogen storages are in danger of getting broken down for energy. Carbohydrates are also a fast way to give energy to your body, while proteins and fats give energy slower. So after a tough workout it is good to ingest something mildly sweet.
Note that fruit are an excellent source of sugars, because they give you plenty of vitamins and fiber at the same time. On the other hand, eating sugars pure, as they are found in sodas or candy, will make it harder for you to get all your other nutrients since you have wasted most calories on pure energy. We should always remember that it’s important to eat the most “nutritional” foods to stay lean, which means foods that have the most types of nutrients packed in one. Unsurprisingly, such foods are lentils, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, olive oil, dairy and eggs.
Ketosis: banning the carbs
While you won’t die if your body enters the state of ketosis, there are many side effects to it which aren’t pleasant at all. When you ban carbs you have to replace those calories with protein and fat. Usually people prefer proteins over fats because they are more filling and to some extend tastier. Eating more protein will cause many people to get an odd odor in their sweat, can cause kidney damage in the long run and can cause constipation if not enough fiber is taken on the side. Too much fat in your diet can cause loose stools, a high fat content in your blood, raised cholesterol and a general feeling of digestive discomfort.
Carbs are an excellent way to get energy fast when you are an athlete, but should be ingested in moderation by sedentary people. There are no bad or good carbs but its best to get your carbs from sources that offer other nutrients too (vitamins, minerals etc). It is best to get your carbs from fruit, vegetables and lean meat, rather than sugary drinks, candy and starchy foods like potatoes.
It is best to view vegetables high in starch as a different food type from vegetables low in starch. For example, potatoes, peas and turnips are high in starch and can be way more calorific and less nutritional than broccoli, spinach and carrots.