Clearing Up Carbohydrate Confusion

Comforting Carbohydrates

Clearing Up Carbohydrate Confusion

Carbohydrates are an important source for energy. In fact, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred and most efficient energy source. Whenever carbohydrates are restricted, energy levels usually decline. During short bouts of high intensity exercise, carbohydrates are the main fuel source your body draws on for energy. When you restrict carbohydrates from your diet, your energy level will decrease. For example, within three days of a severe carbohydrate cutback, your muscle glycogen will be almost totally depleted.

Clearing Up Carbohydrate Confusion
Clearing Up Carbohydrate Confusion


Types of Carbohydrates

Eating the right quantity of carbohydrate is important, but the quality of the carbohydrates you choose is equally important. This is where carbohydrate confusion enters.

There are simple and complex carbohydrates, starchy and fibrous carbohydrates, refined and natural carbohydrates. Plus, there are high-glycemic and low-glycemic carbohydrates. Some of these carbohydrates are good and some are bad.

The good carbohydrates are your friends; they will supply you with energy and nutrients. They help you get leaner and more muscular. The bad carbohydrates have a greater potential for fat storage. They are nutritionally void and rob you of energy. The secret of proper carbohydrate nutrition is to learn the differences between the various types of carbohydrates. This should help clear up a lot of carbohydrate confusion.

There are two broad categories of carbohydrates: Simple and complex. Let’s start with the simple.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates consist of a single sugar molecule called monosaccharide, or two single sugar molecules linked together called disaccharide. Monosaccharides include fructose, glucose, and galactose.

The two we will refer to the most are fructose (fruit sugar) and glucose (blood sugar.) Glucose is found naturally in food or it can be produced in the body through the breakdown of complex carbohydrates. Fructose is the type of simple carbohydrate found in fruit.

Here’s the most important thing you need to know about simple carbohydrates: They’re digested very quickly and cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. Your body responds to blood sugar peaks by releasing large amounts of insulin. The insulin quickly clears the glucose from the bloodstream, leading to a sharp drop in blood sugar known as hypoglycemia. Low blood sugar is accompanied by cravings, hunger, weakness, mood swings and decreased energy. The hunger and cravings tend to cause the sugar consumption to perpetuate itself, resulting in a vicious cycle of ups and downs in energy throughout the day.

High insulin levels inhibit the breakdown of existing stored body fat. The way to manage blood sugar and insulin levels is to choose fewer simple carbohydrates, eat more complex carbohydrates, and eat more fiber.

Simple carbohydrates consist mostly of refined sugar and white flour products. These are the bad carbohydrates. But not all simple carbohydrates are bad. Some simple carbohydrates occur in nature. These natural sugars include fructose (found in fruit) and lactose (found in dairy products). Natural sugars are fine when eaten in moderation.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex Carbohydrates
Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are also known as polysaccharides. Complex carbohydrates are formed when thousands of sugar molecules link together in long chains. These chains take longer to break down and digest than simple carbohydrates. There are two types of complex carbohydrates: Starchy and fibrous.

Starchy Complex Carbohydrates

Starch is the storage form of energy in plants, much like glycogen is an energy storage form in human muscle. Starchy carbohydrates are found in potatoes, cereals, grains, bread, pasta, rice, oats, wheat and beans.

Your body has the ability to absorb and digest all the caloric energy in starches. Therefore the calorie density of starch is higher than fibrous carbohydrates.

Starchy carbohydrates include:

  • Potatoes.
  • Yams.
  • Beans.
  • Oatmeal.
  • Barley.
  • Brown Rice.
  • Whole grain bread.
  • Whole grain cereal.
  • Whole grain pasta.
  • Any other whole grains.

Fibrous Complex Carbohydrates (Fiber)

Fiber can play a major role in a reducing body fat. Fiber is nature’s internal cleanser. Fiber gives bulk to the intestinal contents, promotes healthy digestion and elimination, speeds the transit time of food through the digestive tract and provides protection from gastrointestinal and colon diseases.

Fibrous carbohydrates such as green vegetables don’t contain many calories – they have a low calorie density. Low calorie density foods are important for fat loss because they make it easier to stay full without going over your calorie limits. For example, two cups of rice contains more than 400 calories while two cups of cucumbers contains only 48 calories. The volume is the same, but the difference in caloric density is almost ten fold!

Fiber is found in starches such as oats, beans and whole grains as well as in vegetables:

  • Broccoli
  • Lettuce
  • Cauliflower
  • Zucchini
  • Tomatoes
  • Asparagus
  • Green beans
  • Squash
  • Cucumber
  • Spinach

Carbohydrates of Choice

Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and absorb – and they provide sustained energy levels.

Complex carbohydrates contain fiber, which slows down their absorption and helps stabilize blood sugar and insulin. Complex carbohydrates are more filling, allowing you to feel more full on less food. Complex carbohydrates from natural sources are also the most nutrient dense carbohydrates you can eat.

For all these reasons, complex carbohydrates are the carbohydrates of choice for fat loss.

In Summary

The American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, The National Research Council, The National Academy of the Sciences and virtually every other health, nutrition and medical organization in the world recommend a moderately high carbohydrate diet containing at least 55 percent of total calories from carbohydrates. And now you know how to choose the right carbohydrates for optimal health and vitality!

Hopefully this clears up a lot of carbohydrate confusion!

See also: Low Carb High Carb

Author: Jeni

Certified by the Professional School of Fitness and Nutrition in March, 1995; honored for exemplary grades. Practicing fitness and nutrition for over 20 years. Featured in the Feb. 1994 issue of "Shape" magazine. Featured in Collage in the spring issue of 1995 Low fat recipe's published in Taste of Home, Quick Cooking, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, among others. September, 2001: Featured in "Winning The War on Cholesterol" By Rodale Publishing