Carbohydrates are not evil. It is common to say that eating carbohydrates makes you fat, and cutting them out of your diet is the key to weight loss. These statements are half true, and it can be confusing if you don’t know the facts. Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient in the body to help it function properly, so you need them. It is important to choose the right source to meet your nutrient and health goals.
What Are Carbohydrates?
One of the three main macronutrients of the body, along with protein and fat, carbohydrates mainly provide energy to the body. The body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is the preferred energy source of the body. The energy in the form of glucose is either used immediately or stored in the muscles as a reserve. Excess glucose is converted into fat.
Not All Carbs Created Equal
Dietary carbohydrates are broken into three categories: sugars, starches, and fiber. Fiber is the only carbohydrate category that cannot directly provide energy to humans but feeds the gut bacteria to convert into energy. However, carbohydrates are mostly classified as simple and complex carbohydrates.
The classification is based on how they affect your body or “glycemic load” on the body. The Glycemic Index (GI) is used to tell us how quickly your blood sugar rises after eating a particular carbohydrate food. The lower it is on the index, the better it is for maintaining weight and sustained fullness. The higher GI foods are helpful for post-workout recovery or quick energy for a workout.
To help determine the glycemic load, you want to look at the sugar content and fiber on a package containing carbohydrates. The higher the sugar and the lower the fiber, the higher it is on the glycemic index. Knowing the difference between the two can help you make better decisions for your diet.
Simple carbohydrates or refined carbohydrates break down quickly in the body. They usually give you an instant energy boost but a quick decline. These are high glycemic carbs. They have basic sugars that may serve a healthful purpose in the body, depending on the situation. For example, fruits and vegetables have simple carbohydrates. But fruits and vegetables have high amounts of vitamins, minerals and contain fiber. These types of carbs may be best for pre-workout or post-workout for quick fuel to the muscles.
Most of the “bad” versions of simple carbohydrates are found in processed foods containing high amounts of refined sugars. High consumption of them is linked to chronic diseases like heart disease. Examples include processed foods, pastries, white pasta, white bread, and soda. The quick rise and crash of these foods can increase cravings.
Complex carbohydrates or whole carbs are considered good carbs. These are found in whole, unprocessed foods like legumes, vegetables, and whole grains. These are better for you because it takes your body longer to break them down, providing lasting energy. These are the lower glycemic carbs on the index. The majority of carbohydrates should come from complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates provide more vitamins and minerals to your diet.
How many Carbohydrates should you eat?
The number of carbohydrates you should eat daily can vary based on your activity level, age, health status, or goals. It is recommended that 45 to 65% of your calories come from carbohydrates. For example, if you had a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, about 900 of those calories should come from carbohydrates.
If you see the term net carbohydrates on a nutrition label, typically, it’s the carbs minus the fiber. The net is the number of carbohydrates your body absorbs. In addition, sugar alcohols are partially digestible. If you had a label that was 25 carbs, 10 fiber, and 5 sugar alcohols, then:
25- 10 fiber- 2.5 sugar alcohols= 12.5 net carbs
How to Make the Best Decision for You
As you can see, carbohydrates are not bad for you when choosing the right one, but everything is fine in moderation. If you are in a situation where you may have a chronic condition or a lot of weight to lose, a low glycemic carbohydrate diet may be right for you. A study found that following a low carbohydrate diet helped lower blood sugar, blood pressure, increase good cholesterol, and increase weight loss. For people with obesity, metabolic syndrome, or diabetes, this can be a lifesaver.
In contrast, people who are generally healthy have no reason to limit carbohydrates. In fact, someone who is lean and highly active can benefit from a high carbohydrate diet to support their energy needs. Overall if you’re going to choose a carbohydrate to eat, it is best to choose the whole complex ones packed with vitamins and nutrients.