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.

Monitoring Carbohydrate Intake

The most dangerous carbohydrate is the food additive, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Toxic to the body, it destroys metabolism, working against everything well-balanced nutrition attempts to accomplish. Unfortunately, it is everywhere. Born of the food industry’s desire to generate a cheap sweetener, HFCS takes this country’s overabundance of corn and turns it into a sugary flavoring agent. What makes it so toxic to the metabolism is that the body seems to work even less to absorb HFCS than it does for plain sugar. The body goes into storage mode immediately, and expends minimal energy in doing so. It may also fail to turn off hunger in the body, allowing more consumption and increased insulin response. For overall health and nutrition, and certainly weight loss, check food labels and eliminate HFCS from the diet.  Consider this detrimental ingredient in relation to the American obesity epidemic. In the 1970’s, the average American consumed approximately 1.5 pounds of HFCS per year. Today, the average is 60 pounds per year.

In a well-balanced nutrition plan, all grains should be whole and organic. Organic cereals and breads use natural sugar, or variations of sugar (for example, cane juice) as a sweetener. These products can be a little more expensive with the use of whole grains, and the absence of the very inexpensive HFCS, but the increased expense will be offset by a decreased total intake. In addition, eating properly will stimulate less hunger. The financial savings of minimizing the risk of, and controlling existing, cases of chronic disease certainly justify the expense.

Carb Crash Course:

  1. Primarily consume carbohydrates in the form of fresh vegetables and fruits.
  2. Decrease overall grain intake.
  3. Avoid high fructose corn syrup.
  4. Eat only organic whole grain cereals, breads and snacks.

What kind of bread should I eat?If you look at the ingredients of nearly all grocery store breads, they contain high fructose corn syrup. Organic breads do not. For people with diabetes, obesity and others sensitive to the calories from carbohydrates, all breads should be avoided, even organic. The best breads are sprouted grain varieties. These are usually found frozen in grocery stores and should be stored in the refrigerator at home.  Sprouted grains are truly whole grains, making the digestive system work for its glucose. Whole grain wraps or tortillas are a great bread substitute for sandwiches. They are lower in overall calories and are less filling.

What about artificial sweeteners?

For the long answer, see the article on Artificial Sweeteners. The short answer is that, despite having no calories, the body thinks these sweeteners are sugar and starts the insulin process, sending the body into storage mode. Alternatives are listed in the aforementioned article.

Related Articles

  • 4 Basic Guidelines for Athlete Nutrition
  • The Gluten-free Diet
  • 7 Myths about Fats
  • The Elimination Diet