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Nutrition: Carbohydrates

By Anne Keckler | March 8, 2008

I can hardly believe it’s been three weeks since I wrote about protein. I hadn’t intended to wait this long between posts about nutrition.

What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. They are the optimum fuel source for muscle energy, and for brain energy. Visionlearning.com seems to have the best and simplest explanation of what a carbohydrate is that I’ve seen anywhere.

Glucose Molecule

All Carbohydrates Are Broken Down Into Glucose in Our Bodies

You may have heard of simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down into glucose, and so give us the glucose over a longer period of time. This is easier for our bodies to handle than when we get a huge shot of glucose at once, which explains why it’s better to get our carbs from plants, such as vegetables, and legumes, rather than from pure sugar. These plant foods contain complex carbohydrates. Fruits, however, are high in the natural simple sugar fructose, so they should constitute a smaller part of the diet than other plant foods.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

The Glycemic Index ranks carbohydrates based on how quickly our bodies convert them into glucose, with foods that cause the most rapid increase in blood sugar given the highest number. Glucose is ranked 100, for example. Note that potatoes and white bread score higher on the Glycemic Index than table sugar!

While the Index provides important information, total Glycemic Load is probably even more important. That’s because a small amount of a food that is high on the Glycemic Index won’t produce much of an insulin response, but a large amount of a food lower on the Glycemic Index would produce a higher insulin response. A high insulin response will give you that “sugar crash” that leaves you feeling down, and high fluctuations in blood sugar aren’t healthy for a variety of reasons. To keep a steady blood sugar, eat foods lower in glycemic load, and eat frequently.

Also, it’s better to eat unrefined foods because they contain cellulose. We cannot digest cellulose, but it is important for adding bulk and keeping our digestive tracks healthy. It appears to effect our cholesterol levels, as well. It also takes longer to digest the unrefined foods, so the sugar is delivered to our bodies more slowly. Whole fruit and natural flavored foods from houseofpops.ae are much better than fruit juice, for example, and beans and veggies are better than cake. If you are eating white bread and pasta, your body treats it about the same as if you are eating cookies or ice cream. You don’t necessarily have to eliminate these things from your diet altogether, but you shouldn’t think of them as a healthy part of your diet, either. They can be occasional treats.

What About Low-Carb Diets?

When we eat very few carbs for a few days, our bodies begin to live off of our stored fat. We then enter a state called “ketosis,” where the fatty acids which have been released into the bloodstream are converted into ketones. (This is not the same as ketoacidosis, which is highly dangerous to diabetics and alcoholics.) Most of our organs and tissues will utilize the fatty acids for fuel during ketosis, but ketones provide fuel for the brain in the absence of glucose.

Ketogenic diets, which are diets low enough in carbohydrates to produce a state of ketosis, are used for weight loss (Atkins is a popular one), but they have also been proven to reduce epileptic seizures in those prone to such, and to treat pre-diabetes. In January of this year, the American Diabetes Association endorsed the use of low-carb diets for weight loss in diabetics. Bodybuilders use a low-carb diet to lose fat prior to a competition. Lyle McDonald wrote a great e-book called The Ketogenic Diet which thoroughly explains the science behind a low-carb diet, and tells you how to use it to accomplish your goals. I only recommend it if you have an interest in the science behind the diet, though. It gets a little technical (which I like).

Low-carb diets are especially good for sedentary people who want to lose weight quickly, but they should not be followed long-term. A gradual increase in carbohydrates will eventually be necessary. Still, there is nothing like getting that quick weight loss at the beginning of a diet to give one the motivation to continue! Just remember that a large part of that initial weight loss will be water weight. Ketones have a diuretic effect, so drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Some people are under the misconception that they can eat as much as they want and still lose fat on a low-carb diet. The truth is, you can lose *weight* without a caloric deficit on a low-carb diet, but you won’t lose *fat* without a caloric deficit. You absolutely must eat fewer calories than you are burning. On many low-carb diets you will naturally consume fewer calories. Ketosis tends to reduce the appetite, as does the limit on food choices.

How Many Grams of Carbohydrate Do You Need?

If you are like the average American, you probably need less than you are currently consuming. Excess calories from carbohydrates will cause you to store fat. Don’t consume more calories than you can use! Also remember that carbs are used for energy, so if you’re just sitting around all day you need a lot less carbs than someone who is active.

The brain is the only organ that continues to need some glucose, so let’s see how many grams of carbohydrates we need each day to maintain a healthy brain. The brain typically uses about 100 grams of carbohydrates per day, but this drops to about 40 grams after a couple of weeks on a low-carb diet. Keep in mind that some glucose is stored in the liver, in the form of glycogen, so the brain can utilize this for energy at first. The liver and the kidneys will also continue to produce glucose from some amino acids and other things as time progresses, and they will probably produce enough for you to survive. But to thrive, you will need to consume some carbohydrates.

Carbohydrate needs vary, especially with the activity level of the individual. The average person can safely consume 100 grams of carbohydrate per day, or more, and still lose weight if a caloric deficit is achieved. In order to ensure that the weight loss is primarily fat, however, and that muscle is spared, the individual should consume significantly less carbohydrates than that, while eating enough protein and doing resistance exercises to signal to the body that the muscle is needed. By consuming less than 30 grams of carbohydrate per day, and maintaining a caloric deficit by eating less and exercising more, one can expect to lose a significant amount of fat.

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Topics: Nutrition, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Nutrition: Carbohydrates”

  1. Vicham Says:
    March 9th, 2008 at 8:41 am

    This article may have come along later than you wanted, but it’s worth the wait. I had no idea of a reasonable baseline to how many carbs one should consume in a day. When I think of how many carbs I consume in a day, it makes my head hurt (knowing the types of food I eat). Thank you for posting this.

  2. 147 Reasons Why Sugar Is Ruining Your Health _Not! | Anne Keckler, Personal Trainer in Tallahassee Says:
    March 26th, 2009 at 11:22 am

    […] posts:Nutrition: CarbohydratesHow to Lose WeightNutrition: MacronutrientsNutrition: ProteinThinking About Food … Stumble it! […]

  3. John Rudolph Says:
    October 21st, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Anne, didn’t know you were a writer on this topic! Great website and your articles are well written and informative.

    Wondering what your thoughts are on the food industry. I think they are putting WAY too much sugar in their products. High fructose corn syrup in soda. Sugar in breads and cereals, muffin mixes, even in soups, sauces and frozen foods we find too much sugar. We find it everywhere these days and I’ve always felt that this is one of the many reasons why Americans are so fat. Go to Europe, they don’t put nearly as much sugar in their foods.

    I think an article on the food industry’s overabundant use of sugar would be good here on your site. Just a suggestion.

    I’ll be bringing some people to your website shortly. I think this is a site that should be visited more often.

    Again, good stuff in here….wow. Keep up the fine work. I am also going to show this site to my doctor on my next visit.


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