Contrary to the popularity of the “low-carb” and “no-carb” diet craze, simple and complex carbohydrates are critical to excellent short and long term health and play a significant role in attaining optimum fitness performance. The key is understanding how the body utilizes carbohydrates and how to incorporate them into your daily diet in a healthy way.

A brief summary: What are carbohydrates (carbs) and how does the body utilize them?

We can classify carbs into two main categories: simple carbs also referred to as sugars and complex carbs also referred to as starches and fiber. Sugars digest rapidly providing us with quick energy and include foods such as cookies, candy, sodas, other sugary snacks and fruit. Starches digest more slowly providing us with longer lasting energy and include foods such as breads, grains, pastas, potatoes and fiber in the form of vegetables and legumes. 

Although we can obtain energy from protein and fat in our diet, carbs are the most efficient source of fuel for our bodies. Once ingested, carbs are broken down to glucose, also referred to as blood sugar, for immediate use for energy. If the body does not have use for the glucose at that time,  glucose is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles as an energy reserve. It’s important to mention that glucose is the only energy source that can be used by the brain. So if your blood sugar is low, as it could be the case of a “low-carb” or “no-carb” diet, it will affect your ability to function at an optimal level mentally making it difficult to concentrate or stay focused.

How do carbs help keep us healthy?

The key to eating carbohydrate-rich foods and staying healthy is to get your carbs from whole and minimally processed foods. Natural and unrefined grains, vegetables, legumes and fruit contain vitamins, minerals, enzymes, protein and healthy fats that help our bodies function optimally. Although our bodies cannot break down all fiber that we ingest from fruits and vegetables, it’s essential for intestinal health. Fiber promotes the elimination of waste products, promotes detoxification, can lower the levels of unhealthy fats in the bloodstream, improves immunity and helps decrease the risk of intestinal tract disorders, including colon cancer.

“Good carbs” vs “Bad carbs”

All carbs are not created equal. “Good carbs” are whole foods and include foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains like: whole oats, brown rice, whole grain breads, and whole wheat pasta. To ensure you are choosing whole grains that are not refined, be sure to read the ingredients on the nutrition label. It must start with the word “whole”. 

“Bad carbs” are referred to as carbs that are refined or heavily processed and have been stripped of much of their vitamins, minerals and enzymes. These foods are made from sugar and flour like white breads, white pasta, and sugary snacks to name a few. Consuming too much of these “bad carbs” can cause a host of problems for your body. Some are: undesirable dips in your blood sugar contributing to mood swings, “crashing” or feeling sleepy, dizziness, lack of concentration, and intense cravings for sweets. Eating this type of diet over time can lead to weight gain because of the body’s inability to control blood sugar levels which will lead to fat storage.

How do carbs affect athletic performance?

Being that carbs are the body’s most efficient fuel source, they are probably the most manipulated food source by athletes to achieve optimal performance. Whether it be for endurance, strength or sports specific performance, athletes will be meticulous when choosing and timing their carbohydrate intake to make the gains required to be at the top of their game. Some will choose rapidly digesting carbs such as fruit or a sugary sports drink to fuel their body prior to their event, while others will choose a slower digesting carb such as oats or brown rice to provide longer lasting energy. All athletes will most likely eat carbs following their workout or event as well, and some are in the "bad carb" category as these quick digesting carbs are the key to replenishing glycogen stores and help with repair and recovery of muscles. 

Carbohydrates are vital to keep our bodies functioning optimally. The key is to choose healthy sources and take the time to learn a healthy approach to incorporate them wisely into your diet. Carbs are not the enemy.

By Liza Hughes RN
Lifestyle Coach to Women

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