Carbs Decoded

According to the first QOTW, you guys want some answers about carbohydrates! Here’s what you should know, so you can carb decode before your next carbo load. Also, don’t forget to answer the new QOTW!

What are carbohydrates and why do we need them?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (along with protein and fat), meaning they provide our bodies with energy in the form of calories. Each gram of carbohydrate provides your body with 4 calories. You can see how many calories you’re getting strictly from carbohydrates if you look at the nutrition label on an item and multiply the grams of carbohydrate per serving times 4.

Carbs have gotten a bad rap through the rise in popularity of diets like Atkins and South Beach, but our bodies do need them. During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the brain’s source of energy, as well as the primary fuel for many other tissues and organs. While the alternative state our body goes into (it’s called ketosis, but don’t worry about this now) under a carbohydrate restricted diet is not necessarily dangerous, I’m of the opinion that if it’s glucose my body wants, it’s glucose my body is going to get. I just don’t like the idea of cutting out a food group from my diet (especially one that includes bread and pasta), so it’s important to know what and how much to consume to stay healthy…and slender.

How much do we need?

Recommendations vary widely depending on where you look and what your goals are. I, and many institutions far more renowned than The Slender Student, say to aim for about 45-65% of your daily calorie intake to come from carbohydrate. Try and make half of those whole grains. What are whole grains? Hold your dang horses, I’m getting to it!

Where do we find them?

I’m not saying this to scare you, but carbs are in just about everything we eat. Of course there are the obvious things like bread, pasta, rice, and chips, but they’re also in vegetables (especially starchy ones like corn and potatoes) and fruit. Even dairy items consist of a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. What’s important for health and potential weight loss is the type of carb you’re choosing.

What’s all this about good and bad carbs?

Bad news first: a lot of stuff you probably really like would be considered a “bad” carb. This includes refined (read: white) foods like white bread, white rice, and white pasta. Refined grains have been stripped of the parts that naturally contain fiber, iron, and B & E vitamins, essentially making them nutritional zeroes. Brown power. The bad carb list aaaaalso includes things with lots of added sugar like granola, cereal, juices, dressings, and ice cream. Carbohydrates are, after all, sugar chains. Get it?  Anyway, these all suck because when you eat bad carbs, a somewhat complicated hormonal mechanism occurs that, in simple terms, involves a quick spike in blood glucose, followed by a surge of insulin, then a rapid drop in blood glucose, and before you know it you’re standing in your pantry again, elbow deep in a bag of Kettle Chips. Hitting you where it hurts? Sorry.

Alright, time to take it to a more positive place. In terms of grains, the good guys are those that are unrefined, or whole grains. Have you ever sat in the grocery aisle with two loaves of bread in hand, one whole grain and one whole wheat, confused about which to choose? The deal is, “grain” is an umbrella term for lots of things– wheat, brown rice, oats, bulgur, barley, half of the stuff you find in the bulk section at Whole Foods. So, choose whichever one has prettier packaging, pat yourself on the back for being slender, and move on. Fresh fruits and vegetables also provide your body with the good carbs it needs because, like whole grains, they provide your body with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Fiber?

Ugh, I love fiber. It’s what keeps you full when you eat foods that are high in unrefined carbohydrates but maybe low in protein. Fiber is found in plant food sources but our bodies can’t digest it, meaning it doesn’t provide us with any energy (calories). So, that kinda rocks. What also rocks is how it slows down our digestion of carbs, causing less of a blood glucose/insulin reaction, thereby keeping us fuller for longer. Remember, though, refined carbs have been stripped of all their fiber, so you can only count on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables for all these sweet fiber perks.

CliffNotes?

- Carbohydrates fuel your body with glucose. Your brain needs glucose. Without glucose, your brain will make bad decisions, and then you will get pregnant and die. (Mean Girls?)
- About half of your calories should come from carbohydrates and half of that should come from whole grains
- Carbs are in breads, pastas, rice, dairy, vegetables, fruit…just about everything but meat.
- Bad carbs = refined (white) products and foods with lots of added sugar (anything not naturally occurring)
- Good carbs = unrefined grains, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables (this includes beans)
- Whole grain is an umbrella term for all grains– wheat, oats, bulgur, barley, quinoa, etc.
- Fiber is found in whole grain products, fruits, and vegetables. It’s awesome and will keep you full.

Please let me know if I left anything out or if you have any further questions! Your blood glucose has probably dropped in the process of reading this marathon-length post, so grab yourself some popcorn (it’s a whole grain)!

Sources: 1, 2

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