What are carbohydrates? Does sugar cause diabetes? How much sugar do I need? How important are carbohydrates in the diet?

Some popular diets suggest we should eat very small amounts of carbohydrates, but I am here to tell you we need our carbs. That said, not all carbs are created equally and we must be very careful of the types of carbs we consume. 

When we think of carbohydrates we think of foods such as rice, potatoes, yams, bread and pasta. However, when we think of carbs we should be thinking of foods such as broccoli, asparagus, green beans, lentil, bell peppers, apples, oranges and berries. All fruits and vegetable are carbs but not all carbs are created equally.

There are several links between carbohydrates in your diet and your health. Most of the world depend on carbohydrate rich plant foods for sustenance. Carbohydrate rich foods such as, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes not only provide energy but are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and phytochemicals, which all play an important role in lowering the risks of chronic diseases such a high cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity.

High carbohydrate intake is the basis of a healthy diet, as carbs contains less calories per gram than the high fat diets that us Americans are used to and that promises to help us

lose weight. Carbohydrates contains only 4 kilocalories per grams compared to 9 kilocalories per gram for fat. Therefore, a diet rich in carbohydrates provides fewer calories and more volume of food than the typical American high fat diet that reek havoc on our hearts and overall health.

The importance of carbohydrates in the body

The two main carbohydrates in foods are simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (starches and fiber). Simple carbohydrates are naturally present in fruits and milk, in the form of galactose, fructose and glucose.

Glucose is the primary fuel for most cells in the body and the preferred fuel for the brain, red blood cells, and nervous system – as well as the fetus and placenta for women who are pregnant. Even when fat is burned for energy a small amount of glucose is needed to break down fat completely. In the absence of carbohydrates, both proteins and fats can be used for energy. Although most fats can be used for energy, brain cells and red blood cells requires a constant supply of glucose. When carbohydrates are unavailable the liver cannot break down fat completely, instead it produces small compound called ketone bodies. As the concentration of ketone bodies increases, the blood becomes very acidic. The body loses water as it excretes excess ketones in the urine.

Eating your apples, bananas and berries is ultimately fueling your brain with energy and providing essential vitamins, minerals and fiber. Other simple sugars are sucrose, which is common table sugar, lactose, common sugar in milk and maltose, which is a broken down product of starches.

Alcohol sugar

Alcohol sugar is a simple carbohydrate that is very rarely discussed. Like most other sugars they taste sweet and provide energy to the body. However, they are absorbed more slowly and the body processed them differently. Alcohol sugar is mainly used as a sweetener in processed foods such as, gums, breath mints and candies. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but those candies, mints and gums that you see labelled as sugar free are not. These products usually artificially sweetened with some form of alcohol sugar. 

Complex carbohydrates

Starch is a complex carbohydrates and is the major storage form of carbohydrates in plants. 

Rich sources of starch include:

  • grains such as wheat, rice, corn, oats and barley,
  • legumes such a peas, beans and lentils, and
  • tubers such as yams, potatoes and cassava.

All types of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains contain dietary fiber. Fiber is not found in animal foods.

Foods rich in dietary fiber include:

  • whole grains such a brown rice, rolled oats and whole wheat bread and cereals,
  • legumes such kidney beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), peas, peas and lentils,
  • fruits such as apples bananas and berries,
  • vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots and spinach, and
  • nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds.

Blood glucose levels 

Blood glucose levels, also known as blood sugar levels, is closely regulated by the body to maintain an adequate amounts of glucose for cells. If your blood sugar level drops too low, you will become shaky and weak. If it gets too high you will become sluggish and confused and have a hard time with breathing. Different foods vary in their effect on blood glucose level. Foods rich in simple carbohydrates and starch, but low in fat or fiber, tend to be digested more rapidly, which can cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. 

The glycemic level measures the effects of food on blood glucose levels. Foods with high glycemic index causes a faster and higher levels of blood sugar and foods with low glycemic index causes a slower increase in blood sugar levels.

High glycemic index foods include:

  • white bread – 73
  • whole wheat bread – 71
  • waffles – 76 
  • jelly beans – 78
  • life Savers – 70
  • ice Cream 61

Low glycemic index foods include:

  • apple – 38
  • skim milk – 32
  • lentils – 29
  • barley – 25

Recommendations for Carbohydrate Intake

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for carbohydrate is 130 grams per day for people 1 year and older. That amount raises to 175 grams per day for pregnant women and 210 per day for women who are lactating. As mentioned earlier, not all carbohydrates are create equally, therefore it is important that we choose our carbs wisely. 

Prepare foods and beverages with little to no added sugar, choose foods with a low glycemic index, choose fiber rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Most American do not consume ample amounts of fiber rich foods. The increased intake of sodas is a big factor in over weight and obesity, not only among adults but children as well. 

Bottom Line

Choose your carbohydrates wisely! Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, be certain to include options from all 5 vegetable subgroups (dark-green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes and starchy vegetables), they provide vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, potassium and fiber. Try to limit refined foods such as, white flour and white rice as vital nutrients and fiber are removed in the refining process. Increase your fiber intake by eating fruits with the peel when possible, use brown rice instead of white rice, and choose whole fruits rather than fruit juices. Limit your sugar intake by using less of all nutritive sweetness, including brown sugar, honey and syrups, limit soda intake and high sugar cereals. Read food labels carefully as they list the total grams of sugar in foods.

Carbohydrates contribute both negatively and positively on your health. Positively, foods rich in fiber help keeps the gastrointestinal tract healthy and may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Conversely, excess sugar can lead to weight gain, poor nutrient intake and tooth decay 

Found this information helpful? Please feel free to leave me a comment and share.

Reference: NASM, Fourth Edition

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