Our bodies require nutrients in order to survive, function, and thrive.
We need large amounts of some - we call these macronutrients - and smaller amounts of others - we call these micronutrients.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, and macronutrients include:
The food we eat contains a combination of any/all of the above. Each of these three macros provide energy, or calories, to your body, and each affects your body in different ways.
This post looks a little closer at the basics of Carbohydrates (“Carbs”) - what they are, why you need them, and how to get the very best ones.
Carbohydrates must be the most attacked macronutrient of the carb-fat-protein triad.
It’s important to understand right off the bat - CARBS ARE NOT THE ENEMY.
If Not the Enemy, Then What ARE They?
Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient that provide a blast of energy to your body -- either quickly or more slowly.
Carbohydrates are made up of three components: fiber, starch, and sugar. Fiber is especially important because it promotes bowel regularity and helps to control cholesterol.
Carbs come in two blends -- simple and complex.
Fiber and starch are complex carbs, while sugar is a simple carb. Depending on how much of each of these is found in a food determines its nutrient quality.
Every carbohydrate we eat is broken down in the body into single sugar molecules.
So, if you start with a simple carb that only has one or two sugar molecules, your body will process and absorb it much more quickly. In contrast, complex carbs have to go through a longer process to be broken down to the single molecule level.
How Does the Body Use Carbs?
The four primary functions of carbohydrates in the body are to:
1) provide energy,
2) store energy,
3) build macromolecules, and
4) spare protein and fat for other uses.
Glucose energy is stored as glycogen, with the majority of it in the muscle and liver.
Carbs are broken down and go to the liver to fill energy stores. Then they move into the bloodstream.
When there are a lot of sugars in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin to manage this and transport glucose (that single sugar molecule) to muscle or fat tissue.
In tests where glucose is injected directly into the bloodstream, the insulin response is measurable and immediate, the first phase of response happening within just one minute.
But most of us don’t mainline glucose.
Oral consumption of carbohydrates elicits a much more varied response, based on things like how full or empty the stomach and lower gastrointestinal tract is, as well as individual levels of hormones, and activity levels.
How varied we humans are!
What this boils down to is that your body likes to use carbohydrates for energy fuel.
But HOW it uses them is dependent on a lot of other factors, like what types of carbs you are eating (simple or complex), what else you have eaten with them, how much energy you expend in a day, as a few examples.
So, does your body care if you eat a bag of gummy bears or a bowl of oatmeal?
On a molecular level, no: the carbohydrates will be broken down to the same single sugar components and used for energy or stored as fat.
HOWEVER, consider that the already-simple sugars in the bag of gummy bears will flood your system more quickly -- giving you a quick burst of energy, whereas the oatmeal will need to go through a process of breakdown (the process itself using some of the new energy or stored energy in your cells), and will more slowly and steadily enter your system -- giving you a more steady stream of energy.
Are Carbs Making Me Fat?
The simple answer here is no, carbs are not making you fat.
We gain body fat when we eat more energy than we use, and that can come from any source.
If you eat more than your body can use through its own equation of (metabolic processes + non-exercise daily activity + exercise or additional movement), then your body stores that excess as body fat, regardless of whether the extra calories come from carbs, protein, or fat. And actually, your body does not store much glucose, anyway - it prefers to use it for energy and regular bodily functions.
The reason carbs get a bad name in the game of weight-gain is that so many of the delicious-tasting foods available to us today are highly-processed and over-sweetened carbohydrates which disrupt our bodies’ natural mechanisms for identifying when we are full.
The carb-based energy source from, say, a bag of chips or a box of donuts is burned through quickly, and doesn’t come with many (if any) of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to run properly, which leaves us unsatisfied, hungry again (already?!), and eating more.
THAT leads to the storing of excess body fat.
In contrast, complex carbs from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables pack a powerful punch of energy, PLUS they come with some badass nutritional passengers like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. (Fiber is a special type of carb that helps promote good digestive health and may lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.)
Since complex carbs take longer for the body to break down and absorb, we don’t spike energy, then crash. Plus, they satisfy us because we are receiving the vitamins and minerals our cells and hormones need to function normally and optimally.
For these reasons, carbs help us stay full and satisfied longer, enable us to eat less with steadier energy levels, and consequently allow us to thrive in both physical and mental capacities.
How Many Carbs Do We Need?
So how many of these little energy powerhouses should you be eating?
Like with all things food, it depends. And like with all things food, working with a Nutrition Coach can get you dialed in on exact numbers if that’s your jam.
In general though, if you are a biological female, you’ll want to eat about one cupped hand of (grains, starchy vegetables, or fruits) per meal, along with one fist-sized portion of non-starchy vegetables. If you are a biological male, double these portions.
(Need numbers? That cupped palm is about ½ to ¾ of a cup, and that fist-sized portion is about 1 cup.)
So, a scoop of quinoa or potatoes, along with a slightly larger scoop of broccoli, spinach, kale, or Brussels sprouts can cozy up next to your protein, get cooked in or topped by a healthy portion of fat - and you’ve got a well-rounded meal of nurturing nutrition looking back at you.
Pro Tip: If you are working out hard and often, you'll likely want to adjust your carbohydrate intake UP to boost your energy and avoid feeling sluggish in activity and brain power.
Sources of Carbs
It’s hard to NOT eat carbs, and we know there is no shortage of them in processed and fake foods.
The trick is being selective in which carbs you are eating - let's focus on examples of complex carbs, the ones that have a more complex molecular structure, take longer to digest and absorb, and therefore provide a steady, stable stream of energy.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that carbohydrates are an essential nutrient that we need to thrive in a lot of different ways.
Fortunately, there are many sources to make consistent consumption an easily reachable goal, and understanding how your body uses carbs for energy helps prioritize choosing the kinds of carbs that provide that slow, steady energy -- and ones that you enjoy eating.
Your body, mind, and health will thank you, which means so will your soul.
Recipes to Try
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To Coach Caryn of FitFood Coaching for her contributions to this blog post! xo