By: Michelle Sweeney, Nutrition Peer Counselor, Fit-well Center, UC Davis
Carbohydrates, and whether or how much to consume, fill our social media feeds, but many people don’t know what carbohydrate is and what function is serves in our bodies.
Why do we need carbs in the first place? Carbohydrates are our body’s first choice in energy. We need carbohydrates to fuel our everyday activities, as well as any exercise. Carbohydrates are long chains of starch molecules that break down easily to the simple sugar, glucose, our brain depends on. We need carbohydrates in our diet for fuel so that other macronutrients such as protein and fat can work to build muscle, repair your body, and regulate systems.
Carbs, or carbohydrates, can be classified into two categories: simple and complex. The simple ones are what most people think of first. These are usually made from refined grains, with added sugar and can raise blood sugar quickly. Complex carbs, on the other hand are high in fiber and starch. They are usually less processed and are digested more slowly. They are more-filling than simple carbs due to the fiber content.
While most people thinks carbs are only things like pasta and bread, carbohydrates are found in many different foods, including, but not limited to: fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains. These foods offer important vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber, which are essential to both short-term and long-term health.
Choosing important and healthy carbohydrates everyday does not have to be a difficult process. You can switch out refined grains (white bread, French bread, white pasta etc.) for whole wheat or whole grain versions. You should try to have about a quarter of each meal be carbohydrate-rich grains, and shoot for at least half of your grains in a day as whole grains. Carbohydrate-rich foods work as a great base for meals. Whole wheat pasta with grilled chicken and vegetables and a bit of olive oil provides whole grains in the pasta, complex carbohydrates and nutrients in the vegetables, protein in the chicken, and healthy fat in the olive oil – great example of a balanced meal!
Many people try to avoid carbs because they believe it will help them lose weight or avoid various health problems, like inflammation. The reason cutting out carbs can give the appearance of weight loss is because carbohydrates bind to water in your body. Then, when you stop eating them, you lose water weight, not fat tissue. In the long run, the fiber provided by complex carbohydrates can give you a trimmer, less bloated appearance. Whole grains and other complex carbs play an important role in reducing inflammation and inflammatory markers indicating better overall health.
Overall, carbohydrate-rich foods provide many additional, non-carbohydrate nutrients and they can help improve your health in the long-term. They also provide your body with the energy it needs to thrive. So feel free to “carb-up”, just opt for complex carb sources like whole grains and fruits and vegetables, instead of refined simple carbs like white bread and sugary sweets.