All About Carbohydrates
Think all carbs are bad? Think again! They're an important part of any healthy diet. The trick is choosing the right ones
WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES?
Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and fibers. They can be found in grains, fruits, vegetables, and milk products. Carbohydrates give you energy, thus getting the right amount is important for your health.
Many foods contain carbohydrates. Natural sugars can be found in quite a few foods; fructose in fruit and lactose in milk are 2 of these natural sugars. More sugars may be added at the table or when the food is processed; examples include the high-fructose corn syrup in many drinks and the brown sugar you might sprinkle on your oatmeal. Your body’s response to sugars is the same, whether they are natural or added; however, added sugars have calories but no nutrients so try to limit their use.
SIMPLE VS COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Carbohydrates are divided into simple and complex; to which group they belong is based on their chemical structures. Simple carbohydrates are also called simple sugars; your body digests these quickly. Most refined sugars—including table sugar, soft drinks, and brown sugar—have few essential vitamins and minerals. These sugars trigger insulin release and, because insulin causes hunger, if you eat sugars you will feel hungry faster than if you eat starch and fiber. An exception to this is fructose, which is a simple carbohydrate found naturally in fruit.
Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest. Found in starchy vegetables, whole grains, and beans, complex carbohydrates are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are a preferred source of energy. It is wise to move away from candy and sweets—try to eat complex carbohydrates instead.
Both simple and complex carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. Fat has more than twice that, thus it is recommended that most of the food you eat comes from carbohydrates—but, be sure to eat carbohydrates in moderation, in accordance with your diet plan. Some foods, such as soft drinks, that are rich in carbohydrates get most of their calories from sugar and are poor sources of nutrition.
Carbohydrates are often served with fat, which can raise their calorie count. The potato is a good example. Many people think of potatoes as fattening because they are high in starch, but they are a good source of nutrients. The problem lies in how they are served: potatoes are often cooked in fat (such as French fries) or served with added fat (like baked potatoes with sour cream). Watch out for toppings and cooking styles that add fat to carbohydrates.
What does this mean for you? Carbohydrates are not all bad—in fact, they are essential to your health. It is recommended that many of your daily calories—45% to 65%—should come from carbohydrates; if you eat 1200 calories per day, you are recommended to eat 135 to 195 grams of carbohydrates, which equals about 540 to 780 calories.
A low-carbohydrate diet should only be tried with medical supervision. Some popular diets restrict carbohydrates to less than 100 grams per day, making it difficult to get the nutrients you need.
CARBOHYDRATES AND EXTRA CALORIE BURNING
For years, most experts thought "a calorie is a calorie." They believed that the body treats all calories the same, no matter where they come from. We now know this is not the case.
It takes less work for the body to turn the fat you eat into body fat than to change carbohydrates into fat. You need 20% to 25% more energy to metabolize carbohydrate than to metabolize fat. Let’s say you eat 100 calories of butter and the next day, you eat 100 calories of whole-grain cereal. Your body will use 20% to 25% more calories to metabolize the carbohydrates in the cereal. Calories from fat and carbohydrates are not equal once they are in your body.
This is good news. Foods high in complex carbohydrates are good to eat for health reasons, and your body will burn more calories converting carbohydrates to energy you can use.