What Even is a Carbohydrate?

I like fruit, but doesn’t it have a lot of sugar?

I’ve been trying to stay away from bread.

I love potatoes, but I haven’t been eating them lately.

Aren’t carbohydrates fattening?

I hear these statements daily. Carbohydrates get a bad rap, but at what cost? If you have ever tried to cut carbs from your diet, you probably noticed you were a little cranky, irritable, hungry (hangry), and headache-y. You probably had no energy, could not sleep, and were just plain miserable. This is no exaggeration; although, the severity will depend on how strictly you avoided “carbs”. Does this sound enjoyable or sustainable? You might lose friends before you lose any weight…

Let’s back up and review: what even is a carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients, along with protein and fat. Macro implying that you need a lot of them. Most dietary recommendations suggest that the bulk of your calories should come from carbohydrates, though individual needs may vary. Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms (remember this point – it is super important later). When we eat them, they are broken down into a type of sugar called glucose during digestion. Nearly ALL carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, regardless of source.

Carbohydrates, simply speaking, provide energy. They are the preferred fuel source for our brain, which is why you might have trouble focusing when you don’t eat them. They fuel our muscles when we exercise. They are AWESOME because our bodies can even store them for later use (this is a fuel source called glycogen).  When we run out of carbohydrates we feel awful. Runners know this feeling – it is that time in a race when you “hit the wall”. People with diabetes also know this feeling – called low blood sugar or hypoglycemia.

In conclusion: carbohydrates good.

What foods provide carbohydrates?

The most well-known source of carbohydrates are starches and sweets:

  • Refined AND whole grain bread, bagels, tortillas, wraps, pizza dough, etc.
  • Rice, pasta, and other grains
  • Starchy vegetables like corn, peas, potatoes, and winter squash
  • Sweets and desserts like cakes, candy, donuts, pastries, etc. This includes sugar-free desserts, since they still have flour (a grain)

But other traditionally “healthy” foods also contain carbohydrates:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables

I recognize that most people who do low or “no” carb diets are eliminating the foods on the first list. This isn’t bad per se; you can reach your carbohydrate and nutrient needs from mostly fruits and vegetables. This even has advantages if you are a volume eater, meaning you like to eat a lot of food. Getting most of your carbohydrates from fruits and veggies can be helpful since you would need to eat a LOT of broccoli to equal the carbohydrate content of a bagel. 

9-12 cups of raw broccoli = 1 bagel

But sometimes that isn’t practical or accessible… and it probably won’t be a super satisfying meal. Not to mention issues that arise with that huge amount of fiber.

I have also noticed that people who try to cut out carbs have stronger cravings than those who eat them consistently. When you assign foods to “eat” and “do not eat” lists, you tend to want them more. It’s like telling a little kid not to do something. They want to do it even more. Assigning labels like this can lead to feelings of guilt or failure when you inevitably eat something from the “do not eat” list.

In conclusion: carbohydrates good.

Why carbohydrates are fattening

They aren’t.

In conclusion: carbohydrates good.

KIDDING, I will explain (but really, they aren’t).

Carbohydrates are not fattening. Poorly planned, nutrient-void diets are “fattening”.

That statement above that you were supposed to remember? Carbohydrates are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Do you know another compound with a lot of hydrogen and oxygen? That’s right – good old H2O! Carbohydrates hold onto a lot of water. When you stop eating carbohydrates, you not only lose the glycogen in storage, but also all of the water associated with it.

Generally, eliminating an entire food group will decrease total calorie intake, which theoretically will promote weight loss. This is seen in both low-carb and low-fat studies. The benefit of one over the other likely comes down to individual preference and tolerance.

So, can’t imagine a life without stretchy, delicious Italian bread? Me neither.

In conclusion: carbohydrates good.


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