Carbohydrates (They’re not our enemies!)

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

If you’re reading this, you’re most likely interested in healthy eating and maybe shed few pound here and there and you’re also intrigued by the heading of the topic but this is true my friend, carbs (what I like to call them lovingly) don’t make you fat! Usually when people think about losing weight, they think about cutting carbs from their diets and about a decade back we used to blame fat from our gaining inches. If you want to learn more about my friend carbs then keep reading this article while I simplify it for you.


What?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients and eaten in highest ratio amongst the three. They are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (hence the name). They are found in fruits, vegetables grains and milk products. Carbs are scientifically called chains of “saccharides” or in simply sugars and are divided into two categories based on the complexity of this sugar chain:

  1. Simple carbohydrates: These are made of one or two sugars, scientifically called monosaccharides (mono = one) or disaccharides (di = two) and are easily digested. Glucose, fructose found in fruits and galactose found in milk are monosaccharides. Common disaccharides are sucrose (glucose + fructose) known as table sugar, maltose (glucose + glucose) found in beer, cereals and starchy vegetables like potatoes and lactose (glucose + galactose) found in milk.

  2. Complex carbohydrates: These are made up of three or more sugar chains and are scientifically called polysaccharides (poly = many) and are digested slowly. Simple examples are starch which is the storage unit in plants, and fiber which remain undigested by our gut but help in digestion.


Why?

Reason why eating carbs is important is because they are an easy to digest source of energy. Most of them (exception is fiber) are broken down into simple glucose molecules which provide energy to our cells through a process called “glycolysis” (means breaking up of glucose). Although, not all of the carbs eaten are converted into energy right away, remaining are stored in form of glycogen in liver & muscles and in form of fat (we all know where fat is stored!) if glycogen stores are full. The key difference in both forms is that glycogen is readily available source of energy whereas converting fat to energy is a wee bit cumbersome (I am sure you agree). Other major benefits of having carbs are:

  1. Protein sparring effect: out of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates are non-essential meaning one can technically survive without them but for that our bodies will need to break down proteins and fat. Protein is an essential macronutrient for growth and repair of muscle tissues, producing enzymes, hormones and antibodies. Using protein as a fuel also puts stress on our kidneys and may cause painful byproducts like kidney stones to pass through urine.

  2. Proper brain function: our brains need a lot of energy to function hence a diet low in carbs may cause headaches, fatigue, weakness, difficulty concentrating and nausea. A link between healthy serotonin (happy hormones) levels and carbohydrate consumption has been found, the study concluded that people who were on high fat, low carb diet for a year suffered from anxiety, depression and anger issues. Another study has found that reducing carb intake can negatively affect cognitive functions, memory and attention.

  3. Digestion and gut health: fiber is not only essential for a good digestive system but is an important source of nourishment for organisms living in out gut (no need to feel disgusted). A healthy gut flora has multiple benefits including improved digestion, reduced cancer risks and improved immunity. A diet lacking in fiber can lead to complications like constipation, diarrhea, Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Having healthy amounts of fiber in your diet has also been proven to help in weight loss (What!?) and enhanced nutrient absorption.

  4. Blood sugar and cholesterol regulation: Due to slow absorption of complex carbs, sugar levels in our blood do not spike and improved digestion causes reduction in LDL cholesterol level (bad cholesterol). So, if you suffer from diseases like type II diabetes or hypertension then having fibrous foods in your diet is highly recommended. Additionally, in cases like PCOS and obesity, maintaining low sugar levels is essential to help loose fat or maintain a healthy weight.


The takeaway box:

Most of us already consume at least 50 - 70% carbs in our diets but the important question is what type. I think at this point you are fairly convinced of having complex carbs in your diet but you’re thinking “what about the simple ones?” well fruits and dairy contain good amounts of simple sugars but so do candies and processed foods like soft drinks, pastries, fast foods and packed juices so which ones should you choose? The answer lies behind understanding whole carbs and refined carbs. Whole carbs are unprocessed and contain the fiber found naturally in the food, while refined carbs have been processed and had the natural fiber removed. As mentioned above, there are multiple heath benefits of fiber including slow digestion and hence slow release of sugar in our blood streams while other nutrients in natural whole foods are also usually removed during processing. Having processed foods have been linked to numerous health complications like type II diabetes and obesity. One gram of carbohydrates have 4 calories and according to The Institute of Medicine’s recommendation you should get between 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates or about 130 grams per day. Now these can come through whole and minimally processed foods like whole fruits, whole grains, vegetables and tubers like sweet potatoes. As a general recommendation, foods which have low glycemic index are preferable because they release controlled amounts of sugar.


References and further reading:


Brownawell, Amy M., et al. "Prebiotics and the health benefits of fiber: current regulatory status, future research, and goals." The Journal of nutrition 142.5 (2012): 962-974.


Cho, Susan S., et al. "Consumption of cereal fiber, mixtures of whole grains and bran, and whole grains and risk reduction in type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease." The American journal of clinical nutrition 98.2 (2013): 594-619.


EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to glycaemic carbohydrates and maintenance of normal brain function (ID 603, 653) pursuant to Article 13 (1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006." EFSA Journal 9.6 (2011): 2226.


Tobias DK, Chen M, Manson JE, Ludwig DS, Willett W, Hu FB. Effect of low-fat diet interventions versus other diet interventions on long-term weight change in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2015;3(12):968-979. doi:10.1016/S2213-8587(15)00367-8


Wang H, Lichtenstein AH, Lamon-Fava S, Jacques PF. Association between statin use and serum cholesterol concentrations is modified by whole-grain consumption: NHANES 2003-2006. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(4):1149-1157. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.074344.