(NOTE: This post was originally published on my first blog, but the information is still relevant and needed to be shared here!)
Carbohydrates have been both praised and demonized in society, but what is the real truth? Are they good or bad? How many should we eat and from what sources? I hope to help answer these questions in my final post on the three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Let’s start with the basics: carbs are made up of strung-together sugar molecules. There are a few categories that we can use to classify carbohydrates. First up are monosaccharides, which are the simplest form of sugar. There are three types of monosaccharides: glucose, fructose, and galactose. Disaccharides are next and include maltose, lactose, and sucrose. An oligosaccharide is a chain of 3-10 simple sugars, while a long chain of sugar molecules is a polysaccharide. Glycogen and starch are two common polysaccharides that humans eat. Both are considered complex (rather than simple) carbohydrates.
When we eat carbs, our body recognizes them as sugar in the body, but that doesn’t mean that all carbs are necessarily bad. On the contrary, if carbohydrates come packaged with vitamins, minerals, and fiber (like in vegetables and fruit), they can be amazing additions to our health! These so called “good” carbs are easy to digest, have bio available nutrients, and come from whole foods.
But when these carbs come in the form of refined or whole grains or come alongside salt and trans fat (like in processed, packaged food products), they are far from healthy. These “bad” carbs are void of nutrients, cause digestive issues, and are refined and factory-made.
This distinction is vital to our understanding of carbohydrates, as vitamins and minerals are needed to metabolize carbohydrates and allow our bodies to turn the carbs into cellular energy. Our cells need energy to keep us going, which is why we feel so great and full of energy when we eat real food sources of energy, and also why we feel so poorly when we consume processed, bad carbohydrates.
Why do we feel so poorly when we consume bad carbohydrates? It’s simple concept that I like to refer to as the blood sugar roller coaster. When we eat carbs, our body responds by producing the hormone insulin to take the nutrients from the blood and deliver them to the cells. Insulin has to work a lot harder to do its job when we consume bad carbohydrates, as there are virtually no nutrients that come alongside these carbs. So, our body is forced to produce more and more insulin to do the job when we eat these bad carbohydrates.
When we constantly are consuming carbohydrates from bad sources (i.e. eating a granola bar, pastry, or sugar-filled yogurt every 2-3 hours), our blood sugar levels remain consistently too high after meals. As a result, our body becomes almost “immune” to the body’s call to secrete insulin. Think of it like the boy who cried wolf. He cried so many times that when a wolf was actually there, nobody came to help him.
Insulin secretion works in the same manner. If we constantly eat refined sugars or carbohydrates, our insulin receptors stop responding to the call and become insulin-resistant. What ensues is the blood sugar roller coaster: a ride of ups and downs, energy swings and crashes. Now what fun is that?!
So what can we do about it? How can we get off this awful blood sugar roller coaster and achieve blood sugar balance? For starters, make sure all of your carbohydrate sources are from good carbs (see the lists below).
Second, whenever you eat carbs, pair them with healthy sources of fat and protein. For instance, don’t eat that banana by itself; pair it with a bit of almond butter and maybe a hard-boiled egg. This helps prevent an insulin spike and keeps the blood sugar stable.
Lastly, try to eat only 3-4 times a day and eat a full meal at each of these times. Eating 6-7 small meals throughout the day may work for some, but it often promotes the blood sugar roller coaster. Instead, eating a solid, balanced meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (balanced meaning the meal includes a fair amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrates) will, with time and real food, keep you full, satisfied, and feeling great!
Okay, let’s get to the real food details: which carbohydrates are good and bad? Here’s a quick list:
“Good” Carbohydrate Sources
***Note: Yes, fruits are considered “good” carbohydrates; however, there is such a thing as eating too much fruit. Be mindful to keep a heavier ratio of veggies to fruits, and enjoy locally-sourced fruit when it is in season! (See my post here about my opinion on fruit.)
“Bad” Carbohydrate Sources (not limited to the list below!)
Refined grains and products
Whole grains and pseudo grains (see my post on Paleo nutrition for more info!)
Beans (unless properly prepared, which entails soaking overnight and rinsing them)
Legumes (unless properly prepared, like beans)
Okay, you know the sources and you know how to eat carbohydrates, but how many should you be eating? Basically, we need to eat carbohydrates according to our body’s needs based on our activity and stress levels. If we eat too many carbohydrates, they are stored as extra body fat. Carbohydrates are extremely valuable when performing and recovering from high-intensity exercise or demanding active lifestyles. However, they are less important when we lead a sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, we need to each analyze our lifestyles and take a hard look at how many carbohydrates we actually need.
Overwhelmed? I can see why! It's a lot of information, and most Standard American Diet meals revolve around refined carbs! But don’t worry. Focusing on real foods takes time. Take it one step at a time, for instance, by replacing the refined carb sources in on your dinner plate with a bunch of roasted or steamed vegetables. Or, maybe try replacing one source of your “bad” carbs at lunch with a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts or some baby carrots and avocado.
You can make a real food lifestyle work for you. Re-read through my posts on the three macronutrients and start making small goals for yourself. Whatever you do, keep your end goal of achieving real food health in mind, and the rest will come with time!
And, no, unfortunately, butter is not a carb as Regina George once thought on Mean Girls.