These days, nothing seems to cast more fear into people’s minds than carbs. Many people blame carbohydrates for their weight, without even knowing what carbohydrates are. Confusion about what carbohydrates are keeps many people unnecessarily away from certain foods. There is a carbophobic epidemic at hand. The purpose of this blog is to eliminate the confusion and fear surrounding carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. We can classify carbohydrates as either simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates are one sugar molecule or two sugar molecules bound together. Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly by the body for a quick energy source. These are found in things like fruit juice, table sugar, honey and maple syrup. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are formed by long chains of sugar molecules. These are digested more slowly. For instance, whole grains like sweet potato, brown rice and oats are complex carbohydrates.
When we consume carbohydrates, regardless if they’re complex or simple, they are eventually broken down into sugar in the blood stream. How fast carbohydrates raise our blood sugar level is referred to as the glycemic index (GI). High GI foods, such as pop, juice, candy and white bread, quickly raise sugar levels. Lower GI foods, such as legumes, quinoa, apples and steel cut oats, raise sugar levels less quickly and can help provide more sustained energy. However, the GI of food is changed when eaten with other foods. For instance, by pairing protein or fat with higher GI foods, blood sugar levels don’t rise as quickly.
A common error that I see is the belief that carbohydrates or only found in bread, pasta and junk foods, when in fact, they’re found in a variety of different foods. Carbohydrates are found in the following:
Grains & starches: bread, potatoes, rice, corn, pasta, cereal, oats etc.
Fruits: apples, pears, strawberries, clementines etc.
Milk & alternatives: milk, yogurt
Other: granola bars, candy, muffins, etc.
While vegetables contain some carbohydrates, it is not enough to make a significant impact on blood sugar. However, please note that potatoes and corn are considered a grain and starch, not a vegetable (Sorry). Legumes, squash, peas and parsnips also provide some carbohydrates. 1 cup of each provides about the same amount of carbohydrates as 1 slice of bread.
There is no reason to avoid all carbohydrate containing foods. It comes down to the quality of carbohydrates we’re selecting (complex versus simple) and how much. As I’ve written about in the past, it’s not carbohydrates that are fattening, but too many calories. Calories come not only from carbohydrates, but also protein, fat and alcohol. If someone loses weight by “cutting out carbohydrates,” it’s actually from reducing calorie consumption that this weight is lost.
If you want to perform at your best, then carbohydrates should be a staple of your diet. Research shows again and again that we are able to perform at a higher intensity for a longer period of time when we properly fuel with carbohydrates. However, there are some situations where athletes could follow a low carbohydrate eating plan for performance benefits. This is generally done during lower intensity training, not during competition or hard workouts where performance matters.
Don’t be a carbophobe. There is no reason to be scared of carbohydrates. They provide a valuable source of nutrients that will allow you to perform at your best. Like most things in nutrition, it comes down to quality and amount. Moderation and balance are key for long-term success.