Carbs have been a topic of much debate. Carbs are not bad and they do not make you fat--you just have to be sure you're eating the right kind of carbs in appropriate portions. I cover everything you need to know about carbs in this article.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient that provides energy to the body. “Macro”, standing for large, are the larger nutrients our bodies need each day for fuel. Other nutrients, which we won’t focus on here, such as vitamins and minerals, are considered “micro”nutrients for their need in smaller amounts.
Carbohydrates, commonly referred to simply as carbs, are in nearly everything! Sweet treats, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy…they’re unavoidable. Consisting of 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates are a key part of a well balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.
What role do carbohydrates play in the body? How does the body use carbs for fuel?
Carbohydrates are made of smaller units called polysaccharides, which are simply a series of sugar molecules bonded together. Once they enter the body, these long chains are broken into their even smaller parts (monosaccharides), consisting of glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Our bodies are only able to use glucose as fuel, so the liver converts fructose and galactose into glucose. Then, glucose is either:
- used immediately for energy
- stored as glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles (to maintain blood glucose levels during short periods of fasting such as sleep, and for energy during exercise)
- converted into fatty acids and triglycerides if consumed in excess for long term energy storage.
What are the different types of carbohydrates?
Not all carbs are created equal! They are metabolized at different rates in our body and the larger, more complex molecules help us live a healthy lifestyle. Here are the two different types of carbohydrates:
- Simple carbohydrates: consist of shorter sugar molecules that are more easily broken down and absorbed by the body. Includes refined/processed foods such as white bread and pasta, crackers, sugary snacks, and soda. Healthier foods such as fruits and vegetable juices are considered simple alone because they are made up of fructose and glucose. Typically, simple carbohydrates are fast digesting, low in fiber, lead to a “crashing” effect soon after you eat them (which we’ll talk more about later), and then leave you hungry again soon after.
- Complex carbohydrates: consist of longer sugars that take more time for the body to break down. Includes whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole wheat pasta, and starchy vegetables like potatoes, squash, and peas. Typically, complex carbs are slow digesting, high in fiber, and keep you full and energized for longer periods of time after consumption. Fruits with their fibrous skin on and seeds intact are a great choice and considered complex because the fiber prolongs the breakdown of the more simple juices within.
What kind of carbohydrates are best to help me reach my goals and stay healthy?
Complex carbohydrates will help you live a healthy lifestyle. They are nutrient dense and will keep you full and focused for longer after you eat them!
How many carbs should I eat?
This is a great question, and to be honest it is going to vary for everyone based on multiple factors such as: gender, age, height, weight, and activity level. We recommend meeting with a registered dietitian to work together in determining the amount that is best for your body and lifestyle, but here are some general guidelines to think about.
Our recommendations through experience and in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines of Americans include the following percentages:
35 – 65% Carbohydrates
20 – 35% Protein
20 – 35% Fat
Additionally, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates is a minimum of 130 grams per day for adults. It is important to consume enough carbs to fuel the brain, red blood cells, and central nervous system.
Another helpful reference is to consume about a fist-sized portion of carbs at each meal.
What’s the difference between starch, fiber, and sugar?
Here’s the technical difference between them:
- Starch: odorless, tasteless complex carbohydrates, occurring in plant tissue and chiefly from cereals and potatoes. Think of what a raw potato, corn or unripe banana tastes like.
- Fiber: indigestible complex carbohydrates including cellulose, lignin, and pectin. Fiber helps fill you up and slow down the breakdown of food. Think of foods that swell when added to water such as whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice, fruits with their seeds/skins, vegetables and legumes.
- Sugar: simple carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables such as fructose and glucose that are easily broken down and quickly absorbed by the body. Added sugars, from cane sugar and sugar beets, are often used as sweeteners in many processed foods and drinks and these are the ones you truly want to limit.
In general, we want to keep fiber high and sugar low and we can do this by choosing real foods.
The recommended daily fiber intake is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. At the age of 50 your daily fiber needs drop to 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men.
Sugar can be tricky though, and isn’t simply black and white because different sources of sugar have different effects on our bodies due to their varying rates in breakdown and absorption. For example, the sugar in a soda is broken down much quicker than an apple with its skin on, therefore they aren't equal sources. It is important to choose complex carbohydrates as part of a heart healthy diet.
What is the glycemic index?
The glycemic index is a scoring system that ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 to help manage blood sugar levels. This Glycemic Index (GI) score indicates how quickly carbohydrates are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. The higher the GI number, the sharper, more immediate rise in blood sugar. Pure glucose, which is a simple sugar, equals 100 on the GI scale.
In general, high GI foods tend to be starchier, more sugary, and refined (simple carbohydrates) whereas low GI foods are more fibrous (complex carbohydrates). We want to choose low GI foods, with their slower digestion and absorption because they produce a gradual rise in blood sugar and insulin levels. Studies have shown that consuming complex carbohydrates with low GI scores improve management of sugar levels in people with diabetes and controls weight.
Foods with a higher Glycemic Index (typically simple carbohydrates that are low in fiber and quick digesting) spike blood glucose levels very quickly and then plummet just as quickly. This results in the feelings of hunger and tiredness soon (about an hour) after eating. On the other hand, foods with a low glycemic index (typically complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber and slow digesting) keep blood glucose levels relatively stable over time after consumption and leave us feeling full and focused.
Additionally, the GI of a food is different when eaten alone than it is when combined with other foods. When eating a higher GI food, you can combine it with other low GI foods (like fat and protein) to balance out the effect on blood glucose levels. This is why at fit-flavors you’ll find protein, carbohydrates, and fats in each meal. For example, eating a sweet potato isn’t bad on it’s own, but to make it even better nutritionally, and to keep us full, we pair it with other things like chicken and green beans for a balanced meal.
How do I know if a meal/product has simple or complex carbs in it?
This can be tricky due to marketing on the outside of packaging, though very possible to distinguish with the use of the ingredient list. Remember, items on an ingredient list are in order of abundance. This means there are greater amounts of the ingredients at the top of the list and lesser amounts of the ingredients at the end of the list, relatively.
In general, opt for foods with ingredients you can pronounce and are familiar with, such a Lara Bar or anything from fit-flavors.
What if the packaging says “gluten free”…doesn’t that mean carb-free?
Contrary to popular belief, gluten is not a source of carbohydrates. Gluten is actually a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For more detailed information about gluten, check out our Q&A, What is Gluten?
I heard that in order to lose weight I need to cut out most/all carbs. Is that true?
No. In order for you to meet any sort of nutritional/health related goal, we recommend meeting with a registered dietitian to determine your personal needs.
In our experience, cutting out the majority of anything is usually unsustainable. While you may experience some results in the short term, it will likely be challenging to keep up with that lifestyle long term and sustain your results.
We believe in a balanced, sustainable diet consisting of real foods, lean proteins, heat healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. This philosophy is reflected in every one of our menu items here at fit-flavors.
The key is choosing the right kinds of carbohydrates in the appropriate portions.
For assistance with carbohydrates, determining your carbohydrate needs, and to develop a custom meal plan to reach your health goals, contact me about one-on-one nutrition counseling.