Now that the scientific definition is out of the way, let’s try to break that down for the rest of us.
The easiest way I think of carbohydrates (carbs) is this, carbs are energy.
Carbs are comprised of:
- Sugars: Sweet, short-chain carbohydrates found in foods. Examples are glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose.
- Starches: Long chains of glucose molecules, which eventually get broken down into glucose in the digestive system.
- Fiber: Humans cannot digest fiber, although the bacteria in the digestive system can make use of some of them.
We see that pesky little sugars are also found in carbs, it can help explain why carbs are useful as an energy source. But it also will help us realize why, if the proper carbs are eaten, we do not need all the added sugars we spoke of in our last article.
"Complex carbs will maintain longer sources of energy, help you feel full longer, maintain health central nervous system, and stabilize blood sugar." - Matt Dryden
Let’s break carbs down into 2 types for simplicity purposes. Complex carbs (whole) and simple carbs (refined). Complex carbs will maintain longer sources of energy, help you feel full longer, maintain health central nervous system, and stabilize blood sugar. Simple carbs provide shorter bursts of energy caused by a spike in blood sugar and leave us feeling drained and hungry a few hours later.
- Vegetables: All of them. It is best to eat a variety of vegetables every day.
- Whole fruits: Apples, bananas, strawberries, etc.
- Legumes: Lentils, kidney beans, peas, etc.
- Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, etc.
- Seeds: Chia seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Whole grains: Choose grains that are truly whole, as in pure oats, quinoa, brown rice, etc.
- Tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.
When eating complex carbs, the key is to eat them in the most-whole form possible because it takes longer for our bodies to break them down into energy. When you eat a complex carb as a single-ingredient food, then it’s probably a healthy food for most people no matter what the carb content is.
Let’s say you take a whole potato and bake it vs. mashing it to that buttery smooth consistency. Which one requires the most amount of work for the body to convert it to glucose (sugars) and allow it to enter the bloodstream? Clue: Which one is the most-whole form possible. The answer is baked.
- Sugary drinks: Coca-cola, Pepsi, Vitaminwater, etc. Sugary drinks are some of the unhealthiest things you can put into your body.
- Fruit juices: Unfortunately, fruit juices may have similar metabolic effects as sugar-sweetened beverages.
- White bread: These are refined carbohydrates that are low in essential nutrients and bad for metabolic health. This applies to most commercially available breads.
- Pastries, cookies and cakes: These tend to be very high in sugar and refined wheat.
- Ice cream: Most types of ice cream are very high in sugar, although there are exceptions.
- Candies and chocolates: If you’re going to eat chocolate, choose quality dark chocolate.
- French fries and potato chips: Whole potatoes are healthy, but french fries and potato chips are not.
Think of these listed simple carbs for a minute. Compare them to the complex carbs listed above. What are the differences? One major difference is the simple carbs are man-made. Another difference is lack of work the body has to do to break them down once you eat them, meaning sugar hits the bloodstream faster. When is the last time you went to Spooner Bakery--shameless plug for my bakery of choice--and got your favorite pastry? Mine is the fried cinnamon roll, which I went to get when I took my break from writing this article. And it was oh so good. Remember it’s about moderation, moderation, moderation, not abstinence, abstinence, abstinence!
Unfortunately, indulging on too many simple carbs has been associated with health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes. Simple carbs cause major spikes in blood sugar levels which tend to lead to an energy crash which triggers the body to send signals of hunger and cravings for more simple carb foods. It is a vicious cycle.
In today’s world, it can be difficult to get away from any refined carbs or heavily processed foods. Instead, we need to learn to navigate the thousands of food products on store shelves.
#TIP: The next time you go to the grocery store, go to the bread aisle and look at the ingredient list on the bread you normally buy. Notice the first ingredient. It is most likely flour or enriched flour. When you see the word “enriched” think of that health grain being broken down separated and then reconstituted with the vitamins and minerals. Yes, it’s smooth, soft, and delicious but it is also more processed, fast-digesting, and spikes our blood sugar. Instead, try to find a bread that is cracked whole wheat or stone ground whole wheat (least processed) as the first ingredient.
After reading our tip above - and when to find what you’re looking for - you may want to plan a little extra time on your next grocery trip, those breads are few and far between. Why is it important to know where something falls on the ingredient list? The ingredient list is a roadmap to the quantity of the contents of your product: the closer it is to the beginning of the list, the more of that ingredient it contains.
If the front of your breakfast cereal claims to be “made with whole grains,” that must make these sugary cereals magically good for us, right? Cereal companies, aka big business, wouldn’t lie to us would they? Though cracked whole wheat or stone ground wheat may be a healthier choice for bread, not all whole grain foods are created equal.
According to the article “Whole Grains, Half Truth, and Lots of Confusion,” whole grain foods are not always all they are advertised to be.
“ A study published in January in the journal Public Health Nutrition by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health found that most "whole grain" labeling is confusing, with the industry-supported Whole Grain stamp pointing to foods higher in sugar and calories than those without the stamp.
“...A 1999 study led by David Ludwig, now director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital, found that obese teenagers who ate a breakfast of instant oatmeal — a highly processed "whole grain" that cooks in seconds — were much hungrier later in the day compared with those who ate steel-cut (long-cooking) oats or an egg omelet; and the instant-oatmeal eaters had blood sugar spikes similar to what's seen after eating simple, non-whole-grain white bread.
“Ludwig's more recent work has demonstrated that how a grain — whole or refined — is processed truly determines its healthfulness. You guessed it: In general, more processed means less healthful.“ (LiveScience, March 12, 2013).
Another example of the whole grain label being misleading is the lawsuit filed against the Kellogg company over the popular Cheez-Its crackers.
Understanding labels and how to read them will make your head spin and realize the junk we eat on a daily basis. Again this doesn't mean I will never eat Cheez-Its again because come on admit it, they are pretty wonderful little crackers. Perhaps, though, we should eat one serving and not ½ the box in a single sitting.
As you probably have figured out, understanding and implementing proper nutrition is where most people struggle with weight, depression, and health issues.
And why is it that some people can eat whatever they want and not see the negative outwardly effects when others try to eat the same way and gain weight or have adverse health effects? Who knows for sure. Look at your family tree for starters. What is your genetic disposition? As a guy I have heard, and this is true for ladies too, look at the parents of your future spouse because a lot of those genetics will be passed down. That is not to scare anyone away from dating or having a long-term committed relationship, I hope. It goes to reason, though, that you can fight genetics, but only to a point.
One thing to remember is to not feel isolated in your struggle. Because you’re not alone. Implement small changes that you can live with for years to come.
This Week's Challenge:
Switch to a cracked or stone ground whole wheat (listed as the first ingredient) bread for the week. It takes a little getting used to, especially when you love white bread as much as I do, but it makes really great grilled sandwiches.
About Matt Dryden: Matt has been offering personal training services in fitness and nutrition for over 12 years. He began his interest in Health and Fitness while working as a Correctional Officer and Police Chief when he realized that in this profession that those men and women should have the fitness level of being able to protect and serve the people he has sworn to do so. Matt went on to become a certified personal trainer and began educating and helping fellow officers in setting and working toward their goals in fitness.
Matt started his gym, The Body Shop Fitness Centers, in Shell Lake in 2007 and now offers locations in Shell Lake, Spooner, and Trego, Wisconsin. These locations offer a wide variety of fitness training opportunities unique to each location. To find out more, visit The Body Shop Fitness Center website or Facebook page.