You’ve probably been told that carbohydrates are the enemy, and the only way you’re going to lose weight is if you cut carbs. This line of thought is behind every new diet. It’s the basic principle of the popular keto diet. However, when people are telling you to ditch carbs they aren’t discriminating between good carbs (complex carbohydrates) and the bad carbs (simple sugars).
While watching carbohydrate intake will definitely help you cut those extra pounds, it’s more important to eat the right ones. The truth is that your body needs carbohydrates for energy to sleep, digest food, burn calories, and even breathe. They are just as essential to your diet as protein, vitamins and minerals. As a matter of fact, complex carbohydrates also have high nutritional value for some vitamins your body can’t make on its own.
I’m going to talk about the difference between the two types of carbohydrates and why your body needs carbohydrates like any other nutrient. Let’s dive into the world of carbs.
What are Carbohydrates?
You may not know it, but carbohydrates are an essential macronutrients. A macronutrient is a nutrient your body needs in large amounts. Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are all macronutrients, and you can only get them from food. Here’s what each does:
- Protein: Protein provides structure to organs, muscles, hair, nails, skin, bones, ligaments, blood plasma, tendons, and every cell in your body.
- Fats: Fat is used for protection of your organs, absorption and transport of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and vitamin D, and stored as an energy reserve. This is important.
- Carbohydrates: Carbs are your body’s primary fuel. They provide energy for your muscles and the central nervous system during movement and exercise.
Let’s talk more about that.
As I mentioned, carbohydrates are used for energy. It’s the preferred source of energy for your body because they are easier to convert into glucose than protein and fats.
It’s a 2-step process for your body to turn carbohydrates into glucose and deliver it to your bloodstream. Your body has to work harder to convert protein or fats into glucose for energy. For protein, it has to break down the chains into amino acids, then turn those amino acids into glucose before it can use them for energy. Fats also have a similar process to protein.
So, it’s not so much the carbohydrate that’s bad for you. It’s the type. Carbohydrates come in three forms — sugar, fibers, and starches. The quality of the carbohydrate is what is important.
Carbohydrates are classified into two categories – complex carbohydrates and simple sugars. Let’s talk about the difference?
Complex Carbohydrates vs. Simple Sugars
Think of it like this: Simple sugars give you a quick burst of energy while complex carbohydrates give you sustainable energy.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains. These types of carbohydrates are found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Both simple and complex carbohydrates are turned to glucose (blood sugar) in the body and are used as energy. Glucose is used in the cells of the body and in the brain. Any unused glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen for use later.
Complex carbohydrate foods provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are important to your overall health. All of your carbohydrates should come from complex carbohydrates (starches) and naturally occurring sugars such as honey or maple syrup, rather than processed or refined sugars and artificial sweeteners, including sugar alcohols.
Sources of Complex Carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates are high in fiber and digest more slowly, which allows for more nutrient absorption. If you have type 2 diabetes, your doctor has likely told you to eat more complex carbohydrates because they help regulate blood sugar spikes after meals.
Fiber and starch are the two types of complex carbohydrates. Here are great sources of complex carbohydrates:
- Fruits – berries, apples, and bananas.
- Vegetables – Leafy greens, broccoli, and carrots.
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
- Potatoes – Sweet potatoes are a healthier choice, but white potatoes are acceptable.
Simple Sugars to Avoid
Simple sugars, or refined carbohydrates, contribute to obesity and diabetes. They also lack nutrients and provide empty calories. The more processed the food, the more likely they are to contain added refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, or sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols are artificial sweeteners that can occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables. However, the majority of sugar alcohols are man made. Even if the package says “sugar free” it likely contains sugar alcohols. They go by names such as erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, and isomalt. I’ll discuss sugar alcohols more in-depth in a later post. Here are simple sugars to avoid:
- Sugary drinks – Especially sodas and fruit juices with added sugar or anything that has high fructose corn syrup in it.
- White bread – You should limit all bread if you have a gluten sensitivity. White bread is full of sugar, which is true for most commercial bread.
- Pastries, cookies, and cakes – Almost all these foods have high amounts of sugar in them.
- Ice cream – There are exceptions to this. Dairy-free ice cream is a great substitute as long as its low in sugar.
- Candies and milk chocolate – Dark chocolate is ok.
- French fries and potato chips – These are processed foods and don’t provide the same nutritional benefits as whole potatoes.
It’s Not One-Size-Fits-All
The right carbohydrate intake depends on numerous factors such as your age, gender, metabolic health, activity levels, and personal preference. However, you should aim to eat complex carbohydrates and whole foods.
Simple sugars are ok to indulge in from time to time as long as it is in moderation. If you are overweight, have metabolic syndrome, or type 2 diabetes, reducing or eliminating refined carbohydrates is crucial. If you have a medical condition, consult with your doctor or a registered dietician to develop a diet that is right for you.
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient, which means your body needs in large quantities. Instead of cutting carbs, cut out the processed foods and simple sugars. Complex carbohydrates not only provide your body with energy, they also contain micronutrients your body cannot make on its own.
It’s not about cutting carbs out completely. It’s more about choosing the right ones. The bottom line is that you don’t have to track your macros, or eliminate a food group to lose weight. Diets shouldn’t add stress to your life.If you want to learn more about carbohydrates or how to eat healthier without all of the restrictions, let me help. Schedule a free consultation and let me tell you how Very Well Wellness’ wellness program can put you on the path to a healthier, happier lifestyle.
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Medical disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. While I am a certified nutritionist and wellness coach, I am not providing healthcare, medical, or nutritional therapy services or attempting to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any physical, mental, or emotional issue. The information provided on this website or any materials provided by Very Well Wellness is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute professional medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. Always seek advice from your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before undertaking a new health regimen. Do not disregard medical advice or delay seeking medical advice because of information you read on this website or any materials provided by Very Well Wellness. Do not start or stop any medications without speaking to your medical or mental health provider.
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