Welcome to the last installment of #MacronutrientMonday. The last macronutrient we have to learn about is carbohydrates! This is going to be a fun topic because there is a lot of confusion around carbohydrates. Are they good? Are they bad? Do we even NEED carbohydrates? So let’s dive right in.
Carbohydrates only comprise about 2% of our body weight. In general, they come from plant sources (versus animal sources which our protein should be coming from) because they are produced from photosynthesis in plants. Common sources of carbohydrates include grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and sweeteners.
Some important roles of Carbohydrates:
Provide fuel for the brain
Provide a quick source of energy for our muscles
Help regulate protein and fat metabolism
Provide a source of fiber, which helps with regular elimination
Along with proteins and fats, carbs:
Help fight infections
Promote growth of body tissues such as bones and skin
Carbohydrates are classified as either being simple or complex, which are then broken down into refined and unrefined categories.
Simple carbs that are refined include: white sugar, fruit juice and corn syrup (hopefully don’t need to mention this, but you should avoid these)
Simple carbs that are unrefined include: fruit, raw honey, maple syrup and freshly squeezed juices (you can have these things in moderation, but at certain times carbs in this category may need to be avoided)
Complex refined carbs include bread, white pasta, chips, and cereals
Complex unrefined carbs include vegetables, legumes, whole grains (that have been properly prepared), dried beans and brown rice. I should also note here that some people may tolerate legumes while others do not. I generally do not eat these, but some people can do well eating these types of carbohydrates.
The difference between a carbohydrate being simple or complex is how quickly it is absorbed. Simple carbohydrates just have one or two sugar molecules and are therefore digested extremely quickly.
As a general rule, we should avoid refined carbs as they are not found in nature and actually end up depleting the body. Unrefined carbohydrates on the other hand are able to provide energy as well as being accompanied by vitamins, minerals and fiber.
About 40% of your daily calories should be from carbohydrates and these should mostly be unrefined and complex carbohydrates. This means organic fruits and vegetables, and whole, properly prepared grains (if you can tolerate these). As a general rule of thumb, only about 15% these carbohydrates should be of the starchy variety (like potatoes, whole grain breads, rice, etc.).
This gets a bit complicated however because each person is unique in what carbohydrates might work for them. Some people do well avoiding grains entirely, but for other people, they can do just fine with some of those in their diet. Same thing goes for beans (legumes). What is consistent for everyone however, is that most of your carbohydrates should be coming from vegetables. I think almost everyone can benefit from adding some extra vegetables in their daily diet.
Carbohydrates are often misunderstood by individuals as a low carbohydrate approach often seems to work well for weight loss. I will caveat this however that some individuals do NOT do well on a low carbohydrate plan. The important part about carbohydrates is that you want to be eating the correct types of carbohydrates and in the correct proportions. When you look at your plate, you want most of it actually coming from carbohydrates! However, this does not mean you can stick a piece of white bread on a dinner plate and call it a day. The carbohydrates you should be filling up on are vegetables. By eating vegetables you can eat a large quantity of food (you should be eating a few cups of veggies at every meal) and have high nutrient density in your meal, while keeping calories on the lower side.
If the carbohydrates you are consuming are coming from white bread (or even most whole wheat bread), pasta, cereal, pastries, baked goods, bagels, crackers, chips, etc. then you are actually stressing out your body every time you eat these foods. When you consume a food like this, it is immediately turned into sugar in your body. So even though you may be eating bread or pasta which doesn’t have sugar on the ingredient list (although double check your breads, most do!) your body still turns this refined carbohydrate into sugar almost immediately. With all of this excess sugar, your body then raises insulin levels to adjust. If this happens every once in a while, it’s okay. But most people are eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and then a nice big bowl of pasta for dinner. With a diet like this, insulin levels are constantly being raised and this can lead to weight gain, fatigue, and eventually even insulin resistance and diabetes.
Again, I don’t want to come off as saying that carbohydrates are not good for us. As a macronutrient, carbohydrates can be a great energy source plus all of the other reasons I gave above. However, I far too often see individuals eating the wrong types of carbohydrates (similar to the wrong types of fats) and this can be extremely problematic.
Thanks for following along with the macronutrient series. I hope you enjoyed it! Now that we established a solid foundation about what types of food we should be eating (and in what proportion) and what we should be drinking (water!) we will start to move on to some other topics in the nutrition world. Hope you will stick with me!
Question time: What is your favorite vegetable and how do you make it?