What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macro nutrients (macros) that your body uses as its main sources of energy. Along with fats and protein, carbs keep your engines running.
There are actually three types of carbs, and they show up in different amounts in different foods. When you look at a nutritional label, you’ll often see carbs broken down into:
- Sugars which include simple, easy-to-metabolize molecules like glucose, sucrose, lactose, and fructose. Sugars are abundant in sweeteners like sugar, honey, syrup, and agave, and as well as in fruits.
- Starches are more complex molecules than sugars. Your body needs to break them down into sugars first before it can use starchy foods for energy. Starches make up the bulk of carbs in most grains, like corn, rice, wheat, and oats, as well as in starchy vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and other root veggies.
- Fiber is a type of carbohydrate molecule that is not digestible. Instead of providing energy, it provides bulk in your intestine to keep it moving. Soluble forms of fiber help reduce high cholesterol and are associated with a healthier heart. When you eat fiber with sugars, it delays how quickly your body absorbs them, helping to regulate your blood sugar levels. This can be very important for people with prediabetes and diabetes, as well as for anyone who struggles with insulin-resistant weight gain or the fatigue and foggy-headed feeling that come after a blood sugar spike.
Complex carbs vs. simple carbs
The difference between these two types of carbs is that simple carbs are foods that contain mostly sugars and are absorbed into the blood quickly and complex carbs are the ones that have more starches and fiber and are metabolized more slowly.
Some examples of simple carbs include natural and processed sweeteners, like refined sugar, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup and molasses. Most fruits and all juices and sweetened drinks are also considered simple carbs, and so are refined flours and most dairy products. Alcohol is another simple carb.
Complex carbs are foods that we recognize as very starchy or fibrous and our body absorbs their energy slowly. These include sweet potatoes, intact whole grains like barley and brown rice, as well as beans, lentils, and quinoa.
How many carbs should you eat?
On average, I recommend 3 servings of carbs per day, and more on the days that you train. Using the plate as a guideline, I suggest:
- Fill half your plate with high-fiber carbs (that is, non-starchy vegetables)
- Fill one quarter of your plate with protein, like fish, poultry, lean beef, eggs, or tofu
- Fill the last quarter of your plate with starches, like sweet potato, whole grains and legumes
Because of it’s high sugar content I suggest to stick to 1 cup of fruit per day, especially when you are on a weight-loss journey.
What are carbs good for and can they help you stay in shape?
Compared to the other macros, carbs are better at providing energy to your body and brain.
When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose, and then uses the glucose to create a molecule called ATP, which powers your cells for strength, movement, and bodily functions.
Eating the right amount of carbs (and the right type) is important to help you stay fit. Having enough carbs gives you energy for your workouts, and complex carbs keeps your energy steadier for a longer period of time. Eating enough carbs will also prevent your body from breaking down muscle to release glucose, so you’ll have an easier time maintaining and building lean mass.
Finally, carbs help with recovery and repair after your workout. If you’re struggling to bounce back after training, try adding a bit more complex carbs to your diet.
Can eating too many carbs be a problem?
Well, if you eat too much of anything, you’ll end up gaining weight. But you may also notice that when you eat too many carbs, you feel bloated. This is because for every gram of carbs you eat, your body also stores an extra 3-4 grams of water.
Other issues that can come from too many carbs include acne, tooth decay, and increased risks of heart disease and diabetes. Studies are confirming what you may have known for years, that the more simple carbs you eat, the more you crave, and these cycles can lead to addictive behavior. Even if you’ve never felt addicted to sugar, you’re probably familiar with that sluggish, foggy-headed feeling that comes after a carb binge. Research has also found a link between this sugar-induced mental impairment and having more troubles with depression.
The bottom line on carbs
The popular Keto diet shows that we don’t NEED to eat carbs to survive. That doesn’t mean you have to cut carbs completely out of your diet. As we’ve seen, they do a lot of work in our body and brain that the other macros can’t quite match.
I will say, however, that we should let the research about the benefits of eating fewer carbs give us pause. Low-carb diets have been found to help with weight loss and can be especially helpful for people with diabetes.
And don’t forget to distinguish between simple carbs and the complex ones on your plate. Do we really need all the breads, pastas, and sugars in our lives? With many of us sitting in front of a screen all day, we might need less food energy than we think. Does your car need as much gas when it’s just idling compared to when you’re driving around all day?
Whether you’re trying to lose weight, maintain, or increase your muscle, carbs have an important role to play. It’s up to you to make sure you’re getting the types and amounts that you need. Focus on complex carbs and be aware of how much you consume.
Take good care of your body, and your body will take good care of you.