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Carbohydrates - The Energy Provider

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation, but they are ESSENTIAL to overall health.  Some carbohydrates provide more health benefits than others, and this section will distinguish between the carbohydrates with more health benefits, and the carbohydrates with less health benefits.  

Continue reading for more information on:

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose.  Glucose is used by the body to provide energy for processes that are essential for life (breathing, brain function, heart beat, etc.) and normal daily activities.  

Did you know?  The brain needs two times more energy than any other cell in the body. Glucose is the only fuel source to provide energy for the brain. Without carbohydrates, your brain cannot function properly - decreasing energy, alertness, concentration, memory, and ability to learn. The brain requires a lot of energy, so it's important to not deplete it of it's fuel source.

Carbohydrates come in a variety of forms, so carbohydrate quality is very important.

Carbohydrates are found in the following foods:
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Breads, cereals, pasta, rice, and other grains
  • Milk and milk products
  • Foods containing added sugars (cakes, cookies, beverages)
The healthier carbohydrates (complex carbohydrates) that provide health benefits without too much sugar are those that contain dietary fiber and whole grains - fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, and cereals. Remember, your brain needs glucose that is supplied by these foods. These are the healthier options because of the added health benefits.

Foods that contain added sugars (simple sugars) still provide glucose to the brain, but provide no nutrients and sometimes added unhealthy fat and too many calories.  Because of the prevalence of too many of these foods in the American diet, carbohydrates got a bad reputation and are often blamed for weight gain.

What are the different types of carbohydrates?

There are two main types of carbohydrates (addressed above):
  • Complex carbohydrates
  • Simple carbohydrates/sugars
Think of complex carbohydrates like a time-release capsule of sugar, and simple carbohydrates like an injection of sugar.  Complex carbohydrates will increase blood sugar slowly, and simple carbohydrates will rapidly increase blood sugar.

Complex carbohydrates 

There are two important aspects to complex carbohydrates - fiber and whole grains.

Fiber.  Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. Though most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, fiber cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and instead it passes through the body undigested. Fiber helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check.

Children and adults need at least 20 to 30 grams of fiber per day for good health, but most Americans get only about 15 grams a day. Great sources are whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans.

Fiber comes in two varieties, both beneficial to health:
  • Soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, can help lower glucose levels as well as help lower blood cholesterol. Foods with soluble fiber include oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples and blueberries.
  • Insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water, can help food move through your digestive system, promoting regularity and helping prevent constipation. Foods with insoluble fibers include wheat, whole wheat bread, whole grain couscous, brown rice, legumes, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes.The best sources of fiber are whole grain foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts. 
Which type is best - soluble or insoluble fiber?  Both! Each type has important health benefits, so include a variety of each in your diet.

Whole grains.  Whole grain products are made with the whole kernel of the grain.  In order to understand all the benefits of whole grains, let's dissect them:    
-The outer layer of the grain contains the largest amount of fiber (insoluble), B vitamins, trace minerals, and a small amount of protein.  
-The middle layer contains mostly protein and carbohydrates, along with small amounts of B vitamins, iron, and soluble fiber.  
-The inner layer contains a rich source of trace minerals, unsaturated (healthy) fats, B vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemical, and a minimal amount of high quality protein.

Check out this image of a kernel of wheat to help you understand the make-up of grains.

How can you tell if what you're eating is a whole grain? Look at the ingredients list.  "Whole grain" should be listed as one of the first 3 ingredients.  Here are some examples of whole grains and how they may appear on a nutrition label:
  • brown rice
  • buckwheat
  • bulgur
  • millet
  • wild rice
  • popcorn
  • quinoa
  • whole-grain barley
  • whole-grain corn
  • whole-grain oats/oatmeal
  • whole rye
  • whole wheat
So, in review, are you now aware that by eliminating carbohydrates from your diet, you eliminate MANY health benefits - proper brain function (glucose), energy (glucose), weight control (fiber), cholesterol control (fiber), and many vitamins and minerals found in whole grains!?

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates include sugars that are added during the processing and refining stages.  Simple carbohydrates are also naturally found in fruits, milk, and milk products.
A sugary snack or soft drink that quickly raises your blood sugar level gives you a boost (and any caffeine adds to the lift), but it's short-lived. When you eat something with a high sugar content your pancreas starts to secrete insulin. Insulin triggers cells throughout your body to pull the excess glucose out of your bloodstream and store it for later use.

Soon, the glucose available to your brain has dropped. Neurons, unable to store glucose, experience an energy crisis. Hours later, you feel spaced-out, weak, confused, and/or nervous. Your ability to focus and think suffers. The name for this glucose deficiency is hypoglycemia , and it can even lead to unconsciousness.

The fiber found in fruit slows the absorption of the sugar to keep blood sugars from getting too high.  In addition, fruit contains so many added vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  It would be foolish to try and eliminate fruit in order to control sugar in the diet. Sugar in fruit is not detrimental to health goals like the added sugars in processed foods.

Do you have questions on how to incorporate healthy carbohydrates into your diet?  Contact your wellness coach or click here.

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