Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a popular topic of discussion right now. They’re getting a bad rep, just like calories, but the negativity is misguided! We see things like low-carb and keto all over message boards or Pinterest, but is that really the right way to go when it comes to dieting? Do we know what carbs do for our body? Let’s take a closer look at carbs, and give ’em a little credit.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbs are a macronutrient – a nutrient that yields calories, or energy. Every gram of carb is equal to four calories. There are three types of carbohydrates: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.
Mono- and Disaccharides, the Simple Carbs
Mono- and disaccharides are what you’ve probably heard referred to as simple carbs, and consist of sugars. Glucose, Fructose, and Galactose are the monosaccharides which, when linked together, form disaccharides:
Glucose + Fructose = Sucrose
Glucose + Glucose = Maltose
Glucose + Galactose = Lactose
Some of these words probably sound familiar, particularly fructose. We’ve heard the campaigns for and against high fructose corn syrup, we watch for it on our food labels, and we see “High fructose corn syrup free!” on food packaging. It’s the sweetest of the simple carbs, and it’s found its way into so many of the products at the grocery store because of how cheap it is, and how tasty it makes foodstuff. Added sugars like high fructose corn syrup are what give simple carbs a bad rep.
Polysaccharides, the Complex Carbs
Polysaccharides, like starch and fiber, are complex carbs which are just chains of simple carbs. Starch is a long chain of glucose, which will eventually be broken down into their individual molecules. Once it’s broken down, the glucose enters our cells (with the help of insulin) and is either used immediately for energy or stored in our bodies as glycogen. If our glycogen stores are filled to the max from, say, eating an entire bag of potato chips while sitting on the couch, and therefore taking in more energy (calories) than you’re expending . . . well, that glucose will instead be stored in your body as fatty tissue. Fat.
Plants store carbs, too, in the form of fiber. Fiber is to plants as glycogen is to humans. The great thing about fiber is that humans lack the enzyme necessary to break it down into glucose, so it can’t provide energy (calories!), but it does provide other benefits for our digestion, such as keeping you regular and clinging to excess glucose and cholesterol and preventing their absorption. Cool!
Why do I need carbohydrates?
The primary role of carbs is to provide energy for our cells. Our cells need energy to break down more food, to rebuild, repair, and grow, and to keep our body functioning! Our brain, specifically, will only use glucose as its energy source, so it’s a very important fuel!
But what would happen if we lowered our intake, or cut carbs out of our diet entirely, as in low-carb and keto diets? We’ve seen many success stories and before and after photos from people who have tried this sort of lifestyle. We’ve even heard that when they went back to carbs, they gained the weight back! What’s the real story here??
What happens if you don’t consume carbohydrates
If you’re not eating carbohydrates, but your body continues to require energy, it will use its store of glycogen first. But, that doesn’t last very long – there is only a little bit in certain cells in your body, and it runs out pretty fast. After the stores are depleted, your body works with what it’s got on hand – fats and protein. Fat doesn’t convert very well to glucose, but proteins (specifically, the amino acids that make up proteins) can be rearranged and broken down to create a molecule of glucose. These proteins come from your muscles, so if you’re eating low carb, you’re eating away at your lean body mass as well as your fat stores!
There are a few problems with the conversion from fats and proteins to glucose. First, proteins have their own jobs to do! They shouldn’t have to pick up the slack of carbs! When proteins are being broken down for energy, there are fewer of them to go around and perform the job they are meant to do.
Second, when fats are broken down, fragments are left behind which clump together to form ketone bodies. These are what can help fuel our body, but if too many are formed and not enough energy is spent (like, you’re laying on the couch instead of going for a jog), ketosis, or a high level of ketone bodies in the blood, occurs. Ketones are acidic, and an increased amount of them in the blood disrupts the acid-base balance. If this balance is disturbed, it can lead to kidney stones, kidney failure, and even bone disease.
The keto diet is effective for losing weight, sure, but it can have a negative effect on your health. Carbohydrates aren’t the enemy – all they want to do is fuel you and your brain!
Okay, I get it. Carbs are good. Now, where can I find them in my diet?
Great question! When you think of carbs, maybe you think of bread or sugary desserts. You’re right! But there is so much more than that. Here are a few things that you’ll find carbs in:
- Grains, like wheat, oats, barley, rice, quinoa, and their derivatives – breads, tortillas, pastas.
- Vegetables, which will have more starch and fiber. Potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, squash, beans, peas, corn, you name it!
- Fruits, which will have more sugars and fiber (if you keep the skin on!) Apples, grapefruit, banana, pineapple, melons, etc.
- Milk has carbs, too! The sugar in milk, lactose, is a disaccharide.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I had to cut almost all of those things out my diet and exist on meats and fat, I couldn’t do it. I love my carbs! I’m going to embrace them and thank them for fueling my brain!