Carbohydrates have been getting a bad rap recently. With the “eat all the bacon and eggs and throw in some cookies for good measure” diets out there telling us carbohydrates are bad for us, it’s time to clear the good name of carbohydrates everywhere.
Why our body needs carbohydrates
Glucose is the fuel (or energy) our body runs on. Carbohydrates are the best source of glucose.
Metabolic rate is the rate at which your body uses energy (consumes calories) to go about your daily routine. It is glucose, when consumed into the blood stream, providing energy to your body (think 3 p.m. chocolate-pick-me-up).
Today, some marathon organizers still provide “pre-race-pasta-dinners.” This is simply because the simple carbohydrates found in pasta (the non whole grain variety) break down very quickly into usable glucose and provide energy to the runner, without depleting glycogen stores (glucose stored in muscles and lean tissue), which are set in reserve to be used when we over exert ourselves.
So if we don’t consume carbohydrates, then our body doesn’t have a ready source for fuel. When this becomes the case, the body will then tap into the stored glycogen in the muscles, and once this is depleted (because there’s only so much the muscles can store) it will tap into muscles and lean tissue as a source of energy, and you actually start to lose muscle mass.
Since muscle is denser than fat, you find yourself losing weight in the short term. This tricks the body into thinking it’s in starvation mode, and it stops being as efficient as it can be to consume calories, thinking it needs to store up for a “rainy day.” (Think starving man in the desert, i.e., preserving the last piece of dry bread to make it through until a new source of food is found.)
This causes the body’s metabolic rate to significantly slow down, and hence you start feeling sluggish and actually start putting on weight. Because now, whenever you do eat, your body thinks it is not going to be fed regularly, and so it stores the glucose, which in turn is converted to fat, instead of burning it up. (Again, the starving man analogy.)
Good carbs, bad carbs?
The “white foods” — pasta, rice, bread, potatoes and other foods containing refined flour are all sources of simple carbohydrates (which the body should use up as quickly as possible to prevent storage). These are excellent sources of energy prior to extensive exercise. It takes the body no time to break these foods down into glucose because they lack the density fiber provides.
These provide a quick spike in insulin levels (the hormone the body makes to process the glucose into physical energy) due to the quick production of glucose. This is why, when consumed in excess, it can lead to Type II Diabetes. These types of foods tend to be calorie-rich but for the most part nutritionally-poor, so you end up feeling hungry pretty soon after.
The sources of carbohydrates you should NOT, under any circumstance, deprive from your body are the fiber rich complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. These give you a constant source of energy over a longer period of time. A simple rule is that if it comes from nature, eat it, if it is manmade, think twice.
Fiber-rich carbohydrates have the benefit of filling you up quicker because of their density — and hence you feel full sooner — so you eat in moderation because fiber bulks up the meal. According to Dr. Nagi Kumar, director of clinical nutrition at the Moffitt Cancer Center and professor of human nutrition at the University of South Florida in Tampa, “Fiber can bind with cholesterol in the digestive tract, which lowers blood cholesterol and another benefit is that fiber-rich foods are also loaded with phytochemicals which are known to have anticancer properties.” (source: WebMD.com)
If you’re not a label reader, now is as good a time as any to start reading those nutrition labels. When you pick up your next loaf of bread, make sure the first ingredient says “whole grain flour.” If it says anything else, then you can be assured the brownness of the bread has more to do with caramelized food coloring than whole grain or whole-wheat flour. If you spend a little bit of extra time at the supermarket being discerning about the groceries you buy, you might find you spend a lot less time later, trying to work off those unwanted calories.