Critical to fueling your muscles and your brain, carbohydrates are a primary source of the energy that gets you through life. While carbs have gotten a bad rap in the era of high-protein diets, the truth is that you need them.
Carbs to Glucose
All carbs are made from sugars. Simple carbs, like table sugar, contain just one sugar or two linked sugars. Complex carbs, found in grains and other plant foods, contain at least three linked sugars. Your body must break down these sugar chains in order to use them, so you process different types of carbs in different ways. During digestion, your body converts most of the carbs you eat into glucose, or blood sugar. Fiber, however, is the exception. Although fiber is also a carbohydrate, your body can’t break down its sugars so it remains undigested.
Good vs Bad
There’s plenty of buzz lately about “good” carbs vs. “bad” carbs. Although no carbohydrates are inherently evil - and a small amount of any carb, even sugar, probably won’t hurt you - overdoing certain carbs can be detrimental to your health. Purified sugars are the worst offenders, providing calories with no other nutrients. It’s not always easy to spot sugars on food labels, so look out for names like sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, and evaporated cane juice.
Even healthy-sounding fruit juice concentrates are mostly sugar. Although they have more nutritional value than pure sugar, refined grains in white breads, white pasta, and white rice all fall under the “bad” category. During the refining process, the outer bran and germ of the grain are removed, leaving just the endosperm in the center. The result is a softer grain that is easier to chew, but lacks many vitamins and minerals. The bran and germ are packed with fiber as well as hundreds of phytochemicals, or plant chemicals. (Scientists are still exploring how phytochemicals work in the body, and many of these substances could have important health benefits.) When you choose white bread for your sandwich instead of whole wheat, you miss out.
In this case, your bread calories are somewhat 'empty.' Also, watch out for grain products labeled “enriched.” This term means that the grains are refined and then fortified with nutrients. Although added nutrients are better than no nutrients, you’re still missing the original nutritional value of the plant. As a general rule, the less refined the carb, the better it is for you. Fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, provide carbs but also contain vitamins A, C, E, K, and plenty of fiber. Beans and low-fat dairy are other healthy carb choices.
Carbs Are Not the Enemy
Don’t shun grains - they should make up about one-fourth of your diet. Just look for whole options such as whole-wheat pasta, buckwheat noodles, brown rice, quinoa, triticale, whole rye, and millet. Choosing these foods ensures a healthy dose of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals with your meal.
Fiber is among the most important nutrients found in healthy carbs. Fiber adds indigestible bulk to food, helping you feel satisfied on fewer calories. Plus, fiber causes you to absorb glucose more slowly into your blood stream. This helps curb food cravings, making weight maintenance easier. In contrast, refined carbs digest quickly and cause a blood-sugar spike and crash, inducing hunger soon after eating.
The Bottom Line
Although good carbs are a healthy part of your diet, it’s important to eat adequate portions of all macronutrients: carbs, protein, and fat. The Mayo Clinic recommends getting 45 to 65 percent of your calories each day from carbohydrates, which works out to 225 to 325 grams per day on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Protein should make up 10 to 35 percent of your calories, while fats should make up 20 to 35 percent. A healthy diet is all about balance, and eating carbs will help your body run at peak performance - just make an effort to read the labels and feed your body the healthy, nutrient-dense carbs it needs.
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