Let's talk about my favorite macronutrient, carbohydrates! One of the most common things I hear (apart from bananas being bad for you!) is how carbohydrates are bad for you. Often times I see people on low carb diets, carb loading diets or no carb diets. I always ask the question of “why?” and often times I hear the responses of, “I don’t know”, “I’m following XYZ diet” or “because I heard carbs are bad for you”. Naturally, anything in excess will cause complications (which I’ll explain below). However, this macronutrient is one of the most important components of food that we ingest when it comes to weight loss, muscle gain and overall health.
It’s important to understand the role of carbs and how they affect you. The better you understand it, the healthier you’ll be and the less you’ll follow the media and my favorite, fad diets. Remember, nutrition is a science and in most cases, a complicated one but hopefully this helps clear any confusion and helps you build a healthier relationship with carbohydrates!
What is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are a molecule that is made up of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. They come in three different forms: starch, sugar and fiber. They are found in grains, vegetables and fruits.
Why are carbohydrates so important?
Carbohydrates are used as the bodies primary source of energy. Our bodies need glucose in order for every cell in our body to function properly. The heart, brain, muscles, kidneys, etc! When you consume carbohydrates, the enzyme amylase coverts them quickly into glucose. Your body will use what glucose stores it needs and if any excess the body then converts glucose to glycogen which is stored in the muscles and liver for later use. Kicker here, your body has limited storage in the muscle and liver so if the stores are full, your body will then convert glycogen into triglycerides, which is stored as fat cells. Bad news, fat cells have an unlimited storage – eek!! This is why macronutrient breakdowns are so important. If consuming more carbohydrates than your body needs for energy, this is where they can become “unhealthy for you” and yes, you will increase in weight gain. But ingesting too little can be dangerous too, which I’ll get to in a minute.
On to the next topic…
Why excess carbohydrates are bad for you.
As we just learned, when carbohydrates are ingested, they are converted into glucose that runs through our bloodstream and is used for energy. IF, we ingest too many carbohydrates, excess glucose is produced and in result will create an insulin spike.
What is insulin? Insulin is a hormone that is produced in our pancreas that drives glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells. If we have too much glucose in the bloodstream, more insulin will be released in an effort to help shuttle the glucose out of the blood. Which again, will be transported into the muscles as glycogen and triglycerides into fat cells.
Now, as the body’s glucose level starts to fall, insulin falls. Once insulin falls, the hormone glucagon (hormone formed in the pancreas that breakdowns glycogen to glucose in the liver, also known as your fat burning hormone) kicks in to help increase your low blood glucose by pulling glycogen from stores in the muscle and liver (via glycogenesis) and if those stores are depleted, your body will pull amino acids (protein) and its fat stores.
Are you now understanding why having a balanced blood sugar (glucose) levels throughout your day is so important? In short, don’t over ingest in high sugar foods and definitely don’t starve yourself!! We want to avoid the battle of high and low blood sugar levels and high and low levels of insulin. This is why consuming low to moderate glycemic foods is so important, to avoid these high and low spikes.
Learning how to master the glycemic index is by understanding it.
The GI refers to how fast carbohydrates in our food end up as glucose in the blood steam. High GI foods pass rapidly through your digestive system (fast digesting). Meaning, they arrive in the bloodstream quickly and increase blood glucose levels which then causes insulin levels to spike. Low GI foods pass more slowly through the digestive system (slow digesting) and slowly enter the blood stream, keeping insulin levels consistent, help maintain energy levels throughout the day as well as burn fat.
Focus on consumption of low GI foods to cater to all the above. Recommended foods are; oatmeal, sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, beans, most fruits (apples, oranges, peaches, berries) and sprouted grains.
Why low-carb or no-carb diets are no bueno!
If the body has limited carbohydrates sources, guess what? The body can and will dig into your protein (muscle) and fat stores for energy. Amazingly, the body can pull amino acids (protein) and fat stores and convert them into glucose aka, energy. With the lack of carbohydrates supply in the body, your body will continuously use this method as a form of energy. This is where it can be dangerous. Your body will start to form ketones (fat substances) in your blood stream and use these for energy instead of glucose. This is called Ketosis. Have you ever worked out with little carbohydrates and started your workout tired and sluggish and then boom, you all of the sudden have tons of energy? This is ketosis kicking in! This can be dangerous if doing-so often because, too many ketones in your bloodstream turns the pH of your urine from neutral to slightly acidic which will put stress on your kidneys and potentially raise the risk of kidney stones.
In addition, by depleting your body of carbohydrates the day you decide to consume them again (this WILL happen!) your body will soak up the carbohydrates and store as fat for energy for the next time you decide to go low or no-carb. This will result in frustration with any weight loss goal you may have!
Still following? Let’s recap!
Our bodies need blood glucose for energy. If we are not supplying our body with the appropriate form of glucose, then our body will pull our protein and fat stores to convert into energy.
Glycogen is stored in muscles. When glucose stores are depleted in the bloodstream, the body will dig into your muscle and liver for glycogen stores. Muscle glycogen is typically utilized during low-carb eating and used during intensive resistance training. Once these stores are low, your muscles are hungry and ready for these to be filled. This is the reason why carbohydrate intake post work out is very important!
Insulin is the hormones that helps regulate your blood glucose levels. When this hormone is elevated, your body will shut off its fat burning hormone (glucagon) and in return will start storing the glucose in the muscles, liver and fat cells (are you finding the repetitive pattern here?). Keeping your insulin level balance in check is very important with weight loss especially. As insulin goes up, glucagon goes down and as glucagon goes up, insulin goes down. We want to find the happy balance here to avoid weight gain and stay in fat burning mode.
After reading this you may be thinking, Katie, I’m so lost? That’s OK!! This topic can be confusing so I completely understand. The most important message here is, carbohydrates are essential as they are our primary source of energy. When glucose and glycogen stores are unavailable, your body will breakdown triglycerides found in fat tissue to use for energy. When your fat stores are depleted your body will then break down muscle for energy. In addition, consuming low GI foods are important to sustain high energy levels throughout the day and stay in fat burning mode.
We are all built differently so we all have different needs. However, the name of this game is, everything in moderation and everything in BALANCE. Don’t under eat your carbohydrates but don’t over eat them as well. Find your appropriate macronutrient breakdown so your body can perform its absolute best, be happy, healthy and help tackle your goals!