Understanding Carbohydrates

Between Atkins, carb-busters and all the other quick-fix fad diets penetrating the media in recent years, the general public has been left with a love-hate relationship toward carbohydrates. Essential to good nutrition is an understanding of what carbohydrates (carbs) are, and what the body does with them.  Basically, carbs are digested by the body into glucose, or sugar, for use as energy. Breads, potatoes, cereals, crackers and pasta are the obvious ones, but fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates as well. Any carb that is not a fruit or vegetable is placed in the broad category: grains.

There are simple and complex carbohydrates. The difference between these two is how hard the body has to work to convert the food into glucose. The more whole, or complex, the grain, the more energy the body has to expend during the digestive process. When the body works on digesting these grains, glucose is released at a slower rate into the system, permitting the body to use some of the produced energy during digestion. Simple carbs, on the other hand, are essentially already digested. The body does less work for this energy, and glucose levels spike quickly. The more complex the grain, the more it will improve the body’s metabolism, increasing fat-burning potential and prolonging hunger.

Some Examples:

  • Complex carbs: Whole wheat pasta, oats, sprouted grain breads and bran cereals
  • Simple carbs: White potatoes, white bread, most wheat bread, crackers and rice cakes

Upon the absorption of glucose, the pancreas is stimulated to secrete insulin, a storage hormone. The insulin circulates through the body, informing the muscles and organs it’s time to go into storage mode. They stop breaking down stored sugar (glycogen) and fat in order to take up the glucose and store it, as more glycogen and fat. Because the body is now in storage mode, hunger is stimulated in order to consume more carbohydrates for storage. The simpler the carb, the higher the glucose load, and therefore, the higher the insulin response.

Symptoms associated with excessive insulin levels (hyperinsulinemia) include weight gain, sugar cravings, intense hunger, weakness, poor concentration, emotional instability, memory loss, lack of focus and fatigue.

By improving carbohydrate intake, you can stay out of storage mode, increasing the metabolism and keeping the body in breakdown, or burning mode. Forcing the body to use up the fat that it has been storing over the years is one component of improved nutrition and weight loss. To achieve this, you don’t necessarily need to go crazy with carb counting. Simply focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, and less grains. Vegetables, which contain less sugar, are especially beneficial. An overall limit to grain intake is essential, especially the simple, processed varieties. As mentioned above, the body will have to work harder to get glucose from these sources. Strive for whole grains. The result is a blunted insulin response and prolonged hunger.

On the next page, learn how to monitor your carbohydrate intake.