The Truth About Carbohydrates

I think this is a REALLY important topic to address because I feel like people, in general, give carbohydrates a bad rap! And really carbohydrates are NOT your enemy!

Carbohydrates 101

Carbohydrates are the body’s ideal fuel for most functions. They supply the body with the energy needed for the muscles, brain and central nervous system. In fact, the human brain depends exclusively on carbohydrates for its energy. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, beans, dairy products, foods made from grain products, and sweeteners such as sugar, honey, molasses, and corn syrup.

The body converts digestible (non-fiber) carbohydrates into glucose, which our cells use as fuel. Some carbs (simple) break down quickly into glucose while others (complex) are slowly broken down and enter the bloodstream more gradually. During digestion, all carbohydrates are broken down into glucose before they can enter the bloodstream where insulin helps the glucose enter the body’s cells. Some glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles for future use, like fueling a workout. If there is extra glucose, the body will store it as fat.

All carbohydrates are not created equal. There are basically three types of carbohydrates:

1. Simple carbohydrates are composed of 1 or 2 sugar units that are broken down and digested quickly. Recent research has shown that certain simple carbohydrate foods can cause extreme surges in blood sugar levels, which also increases insulin release. This can elevate appetite and the risk of excess fat storage.

2. Complex carbohydrates (also referred to as starch) are made up of many sugar units and are found in both natural (brown rice) and refined (white bread) form. They are structurally more complex and take longer to be broken down and digested. Complex carbohydrate foods have been shown to enter the blood stream gradually and trigger only a moderate rise in insulin levels, which stabilizes appetite and results in fewer carbohydrates that are stored as fat. Unrefined or ‘whole grain’ carbohydrates found in products like brown rice, whole wheat pasta and bran cereals are digested slowly. They contain vitamins, minerals and fiber which promote health.

3. Fiber and nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits and beans which are carbohydrates also have many important functions for the body and are important for good health. Indigestible carbohydrates are also called fiber. The body is unable to breakdown fiber into small enough units for absorption. It is therefore not an energy source for the body but does promote health in many other ways.

Simple carbs, complex carbs, and fiber are found in many foods. Some provide important nutrients that promote health while others simply provide calories that promote girth. Sugar, syrup, candy, honey, jams, jelly, molasses, and soft drinks contain simple carbohydrates and little if any nutrients. Fruits contain primarily simple carbohydrate but also valuable vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. Vegetables contain varying amounts of simple and complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. Legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and soybeans contain complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein. Milk products contain simple carbohydrates along with protein, calcium and other nutrients. Grain products contain complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein. The amounts vary depending on the type of grain used and the amount of processing. Selecting whole grain options whenever possible is recommended.

What You Should Know About Low-Carbohydrate Diets

Following an extremely low-carbohydrate diet is disastrous, dangerous, and above all—boring! Carbohydrates are NOT the enemy. Including the appropriate amounts and types of carbohydrate-rich foods in your diet is essential for long-term health and weight loss/maintenance.

When there is a severe deficit of carbohydrates, the body has several immediate reactions:

  • With no glucose available for energy, the body starts using protein from food for energy. Therefore this protein is no longer available for more important functions, such as making new cells, tissues, enzymes, hormones, and antibodies and the regulation of fluid balance.
  • When carbohydrates are lacking, the body cannot burn fat in the correct way. Normally carbs combine with fat fragments to be used as energy. When carbs are not available, there is an incomplete breakdown of fat that produces a by-product called ketones. These ketones accumulate in the blood and in the urine causing ketosis, which is an abnormal state. Ketosis does cause a decrease in appetite because it’s one of the body’s protection mechanisms. It’s an advantage to someone in a famine (which the body thinks it’s experiencing) to lack an appetite because the search for food would be a waste of time and additional energy.
  • Due to the lack of energy and the accumulation of ketones, low-carb diets are often accompanied by nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, bad breath, and dehydration. Because of dehydration and a lack of fiber, constipation can result. Exercise and fitness performance is reduced on a low-carb diet. Do not be surprised if your energy level is so low that you cannot make it through your normal workout routine.

When you severely restrict carbohydrates, your consumption of protein and fat increases, which has several long-term effects:

  • The risk of many cancers increases when fruits, vegetables, whole grain products, and beans are eliminated from the diet.
  • Protein foods are also high in purines, which are broken down into uric acid. Elevated levels of uric acid in the blood may lead to needle-like uric acid crystals in joints, causing gout.
  • Kidney stones are more likely to form on high protein, ketosis-producing diets.
  • Over time, high protein diets can cause a loss of calcium and lead to osteoporosis.
  • The risk of heart disease is greatly increased on a low-carb diet that is high in protein, cholesterol, fat, and saturated fat. A temporary reduction in cholesterol levels may be experienced, but this is common with any weight loss.

I know this post was LONG! Thanks for hanging in to the end with me! I just think it is important to understand that carbohydrates are necessary and important in everyone’s diet!

How do you feel about carbohydrates?

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45 Responses

  1. As a person who prob gets 80% of her calories from carbohydrates…you can tell I love my carbs! It wasn’t always the case…I used to fear it like the plague. I thought it would make me blow up into a whale, but not so. It just made me less cranky, more productive, and healthier!

  2. Thanks for the info! As a vegetarian, it’s easy to fall back on carbs – and not all “good” carbs. While I know they are essential, I have tried to cut back on them and tried to increase my protein. With the heavier weight lifting, I felt that I wasn’t getting nearly enough protein and relying on tons of carbs. I was feeling hungry more frequently. I feel so much better and energized now that I have re-balanced it out and am eating the right kid of carbs.

  3. It always irks me when people talk about cutting out the carbs to drop a few pounds… I just wanna be like “yeah… they’re in everything…”

    It’s like when people don’t think you’ll get enough protein if you cut out meat!

  4. I used to be on the low carb bandwagon! Now Im on the “have more complex carbs than simple carbs and not the processed carb crap! Works much better for me!

  5. Carbohydrates are my best friend- I couldn’t function without them 🙂 Great post, Kelly!

  6. I get annoyed with people who claim to be on a “low carb diet” or get on my case about eating too many carbs. My body needs carbohydrates in order to work out as much as I do. I have no issues. 🙂

  7. This information is so important for readers! Carbohydrates can seem scary to some people or seem fattening to others, but without them, it is definitely hard to achieve long-term SUSTAINABLE healthy eating/living.
    I myself went through various diet crazes, and the low-carb diets were most detrimental to my health and ironically, my diet! Entering any level of “starvation” mode will consequently cause your body and brain to crave what it has been deprived of. This can rear its head sooner or later, but it tends to undermine any positive effects of a “diet.”
    The lesson learned I suppose is what you’re getting at with your informational post! Sustainable, well-rounded eating is best and your goals can be achieved in healthy ways!
    Thanks for the great post! Wish I had seen this back then!

  8. Loved this! It [sort-of] related to my protein posts in that I was trying to explain ketones & what happens if you don’t get enough carbs 😀

    How do I feel about carbohydrates?? Hmm…well, running sure would suck without them!

  9. I love carbs! It horrifies me when I hear family or friends talk about a low or no carb diet. All carbs aren’t created equal so get rid of the bad but embrace the good ones!

  10. i love carbs…always have, always will! it’s also really important to realize that carbs don’t only encompass bread products…it’s fruit & veggies too!

  11. I think that unless you need to restrict them for medical reasons (diabetes, for instance), there’s no reason to avoid carbs. I always thought it was weird, back when Atkins was huge, that people thought giving up fruits and certain vegetables was smart. It’s a shame that diet created such a fear of carbs. As if eating a piece of bread will instantaneously add two inches to your hips or face. I eat complex carbs and, of course, fruits and veggies that have a lot of carboyhydrate.

    Great post!

  12. I love carbs! Thanks for the post, I learned some things! 🙂

  13. I love carbs!! If I don’t eat them I can NEVER get full. Everything in moderation, right?? 🙂

    – Beth @ http://www.DiningAndDishing.com

  14. How do I feel about carbs? I love em! There was a time when I shunned them, but that was disatrous for both me and those that had to be around me. My body works hard for me and needs fuel.

  15. This was a great post! I’ve never understood the diets that eliminate an entire macronutrient: low fat or low carb just aren’t how the body was meant to function!!

  16. I used to be scared of carbs, but then I realized that my weight was easier to maintain and I felt SO much better with enough carbs in my diet. Like you said, it’s about focusing on getting the most nutritious ones and being sure to get enough to fuel your body properly. I will never limit carbs again.

  17. i LOVE carbs. my diet is seriously 80% carbs. however, the p90x plan has me on 60% protein, 20 carb and 20 fat right now for the “fat burner” phase. the last phase though is perfect. the program works you up to a 50/30/20 diet (carbs/protein/fat) which i think is pretty balanced.

  18. I’m a carbasourus..well if I was a dinosaur that’s what I’d be called. I love my carbs. I tried to go low carb several years ago when it was super popular and it made me really sick. I learned right then it was not a healthy way to do anything. Thank you for explaining the carbs. I’m not too savy at all of the knowledge and I just learned a lot! I saw you’re doing that ab challenge at good n weird. So exciting!

  19. I always get frustrated with friends and family members whose “diet” consists of reducing carbs. They are totally going at it wrong!

    On a separate note, what percentage of carbs do you consume as a % of your daily total (versus fats and protein)? I have been doing some research on this topic lately and having trouble getting consistent information. So much is dependent on body weight, age and other factors. Just curious to know if you have any recommendations that work well for another runner.

    • I really think is all differs for everyone’s individual needs but as a runner I KNOW I need more carbohydrates because I burn through them so quickly! I haven’t ever really put pen to paper but if I had to guess I would say I probably operate on a 70-75% carbohydrate diet. Mostly raw carbohydrates…fruits and vegetables but also gluten-free whole grains like brown rice and quinoa.

  20. THANK YOU for this post!! I don’t know why there is such a negative attitude towards carbs (actually — I hate how our society is so reductionistic and picks apart certain nutrients, but that’s a rant for another day…)

    I love carbs and couldn’t live without them. I don’t have as much energy and my running definitely suffers when I’m not eating enough. I think extreme low carbohydrate diets can be dangerous. Yes, you can initially lose weight by eating this way, but it is not healthy for the long-term. Obviously surviving on plain pasta and sugary foods isn’t healthy either…but eating a well rounded diet that contains plenty of complex carbs is so important for overall health.

    • I totally agree….I think any way of eating that is too extreme is not sustainable for the long-term and my goal has always been to have a sustainable well rounded diet that I can live on forever!

  21. Thanks for posting this! There are so many misperceptions about carbohydrates. If I eat a meal low in carbohydrates, I don’t feel full after. I need the fiber and bulk of carbohydrates to fill me up! They’re so important for energy during and recovery after exercise. I remember learning in exercise physiology how those who are on low-CHO diets never fully replenish their glycogen stores after intense exercise (it can take them days longer than those on higher-CHO diets), so they continually deplete, deplete, deplete without ever fully restoring until they bottom out, which is definitely not a good thing! I’m assuming they would have a lot of the negative effects you listed above.
    Well if the scientists say so, I guess you can force me to eat my carbohydrates 😉

  22. I have tried the low carb avenue and couldn’t maintain it. Now I just try to be selective about the kind of carbs I eat, opting for the less refined variety most but not all of the time. Everything in moderation!

  23. I love carbs, but of course watch my intake of bread, pasta and rice. I LOVE beans. I get plenty of carbs in fruit, veggies and cereal/granola and oatmeal. My thighs don’t like them so 🙂

    Great post!!

  24. I loveee carbs, maybe a bit too much. I definitely eat carbs in fruit, vegies and beans but try to pay a bit more attention to my carbs that come from bread. I try to eat whole grains as much as possible! Thanks for breaking it down 🙂

  25. Carbs rule the world!!

    …and if you wouldn’t mind checking out my latest post…i had a question there about jobs…i accepted a new one, wasn’t sure, started it – and the people are great , etc…but it’s just different from what i thought and the duties and i just don’t feel right there so much…i don’t know though if it was already stuck in my head or not….i have other offers and now feel i should go with those…but i know that’s completely irresponsible after just starting and unprofessional – and my family tells me so – and that i can’t do that….what should i do ? 😦

  26. This was an extremely informative post on carbs! It was a great refresher for me! Thanks for posting about this today:)

  27. When I started running I started liking carbs again but it needs to be the right carbs 😉 Thanks for a great post!

  28. I think this is my favorite post of yours to date. I get SO frustrated by people that “carb hate”. They are so vital to healthy living and help you feel energetic. Plus, I’d live on them entirely if I could 😉 I think the low-carb craze was one of the saddest fads I’ve ever seen. I still know a lot of people that do it too.

  29. I am a carb girl through and through!

  30. i like carbs! a lot! i used to feel super guilty about this so i tried to avoid them. i have started embrassing them and no longer find the need to binge on them. imagine that 🙂

  31. I’m a carb lady! I honestly have never even thought about giving up carbs – I just know I’d feel horrible and have seen friends on low-carb diets and they’re so… mean. lol

  32. very interesting post! I am horrible with carbs. I eat too many… I dont pay attention to how many are in things. Carbs and I are just not bff’s

    xo

  33. I just came across your blog from fro yo foodie. Seriously, thank you for such a great blog on carbs. I used to eat a lot of refined flour/sugar and learned that I could still satisfy my carb cravings with more wholesome foods.
    Loved this !!!

  34. I know that i am a high carb/low protein person. That’s just how my body works best. I do not shun carbs, never have. Even while training for a show, i still eat carbs, enjoy, NEED, and have them. Protein, not a huge key thing for me…Fats though, yes, I need those too!

    Great post Kelly!

  35. Yeah, it’s good, very useful, thanks 🙂

  36. In short – I could not live life without carbs. I strive to eat complex carbs the most, but I loved fruit and frequently eat PB&J sandwiches – so there are some simple carbs in my diet as well. A friend recently told me she was trying Atkins and I had to control my reaction. I contained it, but then tried to talk her out of it. But, the proof is in the pudding as they say. And within 2 weeks her body was having such an awful reaction to the low-carb, high-fat diet that she abandoned it. Thanks Goodness!

  37. I love carbs – they’re my favorite food group 🙂

  38. I love carbs – but I know that I eat way too many simple carbs and need to bump up my complex carbs instead.

    I did go low-carb once (without knowing about Atkins) and I lost 40 lbs in about 2 months. But of course, I gained it all back when I started eating carbs again.

    Great post, darling!!

  39. I think a lot of people eat way too many carbs, especially white bread, white pasta, and sugary stuff. I like that South Beach helps people focus on the right kind of carbs, but I don’t think I could ever cut carbs from my diet (fruit, veggies, whole grains… No way!!!). I love carbs, and I’m smart about what I eat. Great post!! Great info!!

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