In the world of healthy eating, diets, and weight loss, carbohydrates are often singled out as the root cause of bad health. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal, especially when it comes to their glycemic index. Let’s take a closer look at carbohydrates and how you can choose the right carbs to fit into a healthy, balanced diet.
What are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient. They are one of three ways your body gets energy in the form of calories, the other two being fats and protein. Carbohydrates get their name because they contain a mix of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.
As a macronutrient, carbohydrates cannot be made in the body and can only be obtained via your diet. In foods, carbohydrates comprise the starches, sugars, and fiber contained in vegetables, fruits, milk, and grain products.
What Do Carbs Do?
Despite what many health articles say, carbohydrates are a necessary part of any healthy diet. They fuel your muscles and your central nervous system. Carbohydrates also allow for regular fat metabolism while preventing your body from using protein as a source for energy. For athletes, bodybuilders, and those just looking to improve physical performance, that’s a big deal. Dipping into protein for energy essentially means your body eats your muscles to operate, reducing your strength and your overall physique. Using protein for energy also puts a great deal of stress on your kidneys, causing the painful byproducts to end up in your urine.
Carbs are also integral to your brain’s normal function. They influence your mood and memory and act as a quick source for physical and mental energy.
How Many Carbs Do You Need?
According to the National Institute of Health, the average adult requires about 135 grams of carbohydrates per day, though even the NIH admits that requirements differ from person to person. As a general rule of thumb, most people should get 45 to 65 percent of their total calories from carbohydrates.
That means that if 1 gram of carbs is roughly 4 calories, you would need at least 200 grams of carbohydrates for a daily 1,800-calorie diet. However, if you’re diabetic, you should not have more than 200 grams of carbs. Women who are pregnant need at least 175 grams of carbohydrates per day.
The recommended daily amount of carbs is actually based less on your body’s needs and more on the amount of carbs your brain requires to function properly.
The Simple and Complex Problem with Carbs
Carbs can be categorized as simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates contain just one or two sugars. Simple carbs can be found in fruits, some vegetables, and certain dairy products. Complex carbohydrates, like beans, lentils, nuts, and whole grains, comprise three or more sugars and are often referred to as starches.
Both carbs are important sources of energy, but simple carbs get processed faster thanks to their simpler structure. This leads to sudden spikes in energy and blood sugar levels. Complex carbs offer longer, more sustained forms of energy.
Carbs essentially get converted into glucose in your liver. Glucose is the basic sugar that your body uses as energy for all bodily functions. If you don’t immediately need all the glucose, you can store up to 2,000 calories of it in the form of glycogen in your skeletal muscles and liver. When these glycogen stores get full, your body stores the carbs as fat.
The problem is that simple carbs are also included in soda, candy, and syrups. These are made using refined, over-processed sugars that contain no nutritional value—that means no real vitamins, nutrients, or minerals. These are considered empty calories, and if you don’t immediately work them off, the sugars just get turned into fat, causing you to gain weight. Studies show that simple carbs in processed foods have also been associated with type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Good Carbs, Bad Carbs, and the Glycemic Index
Simple carbs, which generally include sweets, pastries, and processed grains, tend to be considered bad because they are:
- High in calories
- High in refined sugar
- Lacking in fiber
- Low in vitamins and nutrients
- Unable to provide satiation, thus making it easier to overeat
Good carbs are often synonymous with complex carbs, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. These carbs are:
- High in vitamins and nutrients
- High in fiber
- Low in sodium, calories, and saturated fat
- Lacking in refined sugars
However, more recent studies suggest that the health of a carb has less to do with the type of carb and more to do with where any particular carb lands on the glycemic index. The glycemic index measures the amount and speed at which a carbohydrate affects your blood sugar levels. Glycemic index values are measured through scientific processes, and only a handful of nutrition research groups in the world can provide a legitimate testing service.
There are a variety of factors that can affect the glycemic index value, including:
- The physical structure of the carbohydrate: For example, wheat flour is finer than other types of flour, making it easier for digestive enzymes to metabolize.
- The chemical structure of the carbohydrate: Pure glucose is the reference point with a glycemic index of 100, making it very easy for the body to process. Fructose, a common sugar found in fruits, has a much lower glycemic index of just 23, while sucrose (or ordinary table sugar) lies between the two with a glycemic index of 65.
- How much refining and processing goes into the carbohydrate: Most high glycemic carbs are often refined and processed to the point of removing fiber and many other useful nutrients. This essentially makes them much easier to metabolize into glucose.
- The method of cooking the carbohydrate: Pasta that is cooked al dente has a lower glycemic index value as it can resist digestive enzymes better.
- The presence of any other substances or chemicals that can reduce the speed of digestion or the potency of your digestive enzymes: Low glycemic carbs tend to be high in fiber, which can slow digestion and protect starchy carbohydrates from enzymes. Fat or acid in the carbohydrate or in your stomach can also slow down the process of converting carbs to glucose.
High glycemic carbs give you a sudden burst of high energy with a dramatic dip soon after. This can leave you with less energy and cravings for sugary foods that lack nutrition. On the other side of the spectrum, low glycemic carbs offer a slow, steady flow of energy that leaves you satisfied for longer, preventing you from reaching for unhealthy snacks. Some research links high glycemic foods with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain forms of cancer.
High Glycemic Carbs List
Some high glycemic carbs include:
- White rice
- Instant oatmeal
- Sugary cereals
- White bread
- Soda and other sugary drinks
- Graham crackers
The general consensus is that high glycemic carbs should be limited. However, high glycemic carbs can be beneficial when eaten immediately after a workout. Aside from replenishing your energy, eating high glycemic carbs right after your workout can help to transport glucose and other nutrients to muscle cells when they are at their most receptive. This helps when you want to build muscle, but even if you want to lose weight, eating high glycemic carbs can help to prevent the break down of muscle tissue. That said, stick with more quality foods, like white rice, oatmeal and potatoes, instead of sugary, over-processed junk foods.
Low Glycemic Carbs List
Some common low glycemic carbs that you should keep in your diet include:
- Fresh fruits
- Non-starchy vegetables
- Bell peppers
- Whole grains and multigrain
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat bread
- Black beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Kidney beans
- Soy beans
- Baked beans
- Plain yogurt
- Premium, full-fat ice cream with few sugary add-ons (though this should only be an occasional treat)
You should mainly focus on low glycemic carbs throughout your day to prevent stored fats or any sudden spikes in your blood sugar. Consider eating a light meal with low glycemic carbs about 60 to 90 minutes before your workout. This gives your body enough time to digest the meal and disperse all the necessary energy and nutrients to power your workout. Focusing on low glycemic carbs without fructose may help you burn more fat during exercises. You should also consume low glycemic carbs with some slow-digesting proteins before bed to prevent muscle catabolism while you sleep.
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