Thanks to society, when we hear the word ‘carbs’, we automatically think ‘weight gain’ or ‘carbs just make us fat’. We fail to understand the real purpose and necessity of carbs.
We need to shift our thinking of carbs from ‘weight gain’ to ‘survival’. Carbohydrates are the most important macro for survival, they are the fuel for our brains and our bodies. Consuming carbohydrates is important to ensure the body has what it needs to operate at at its peak. Think about a time you have felt light headed or lacking energy and you will probably realise it was because you were carb depleted, you were ‘running out of fuel’. Even when we are sleeping our bodies are working hard to produce the energy we require to keep our body functioning. Carbohydrates provide energy to the body by breaking down into simple sugars during digestion.
With this in mind, although carbohydrates are essential for survival, it is also important to understand carbohydrates are sugar! Carbohydrates (or as we all call it, carbs) is the term used for the group of foods made up of sugars, starches and dietary fibre. You may be surprised to learn, all carbs contain sugar. However it is their chemical structure that determines their impact on weight gain, energy production and overall health.
Simply speaking carbohydrates can be split into two groups;
• Simple carbohydrates, and;
• Complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates, also called simple sugars, are found in refined sugars, like the white sugar we find in a sugar bowl. If we have a bag of lollies, we are eating simple carbs. Simple carbs, or simple sugars can also be found in more nutritious foods such as fruit, however fruit also contains vitamins, and other important nutrients and does not contain any added sugars. A packet of lollies has a heap of added sugar and no important nutrients.
Simple carbohydrates provide short burst of energy usually followed by a crash. It is easy to over indulge in simple sugars as they provide no nutritional value and do not create a feeling of fullness.
Complex carbohydrates, also called starches, take longer for the body to break down and therefore provide energy to the body over a longer period of time. Complex carbohydrates include green vegetables, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn and pumpkin and grain products, such as bread, crackers, pasta, and rice.
As with simple carbohydrates, some complex carbohydrate foods are better choices than others. Refined grains, such as white flour and white rice, have been processed, which removes nutrients and fibre. Unrefined grains still contain vitamins and minerals and are also rich in fibre, which helps your digestive system work effectively. Fibre helps you feel full, so you are less likely to overeat these foods. That explains why a bowl of oats or vegetables fills you up better than sugary candy with the same amount of calories.
How the body uses carbohydrates
When we eat carbohydrates, our body breaks them down into simple sugars, which are absorbed into the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises in our body, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin is needed to maintain a healthy blood sugar level, it does this by moving sugar from the blood into the cells, where the sugar can be used as a source of energy.
To simplify this, when sugar is consumed it goes through a three phase process depending on the amount of sugar that needs to be metabolised. The process is as follows;
Sugar consumed provides immediate energy for various metabolic processes; (think fuel for your body)
Sugar that isn't needed for immediate energy is then converted to glycogen (a substance deposited in bodily tissues as a store of carbohydrates) and stored for future use (think filling up your reserve fuel tank);
Any excess sugar that cant be used immediately or stored as glycogen gets converted to fat (think overflow of fuel tanks).
We can see now that sugar is used to provide energy, however depending on how much energy is required and how much sugar is consumed dictates whether it gets used immediately, stored for later or just stored away as fat. This is where the rule of energy in versus energy out comes into play. If we are inactive (energy out) and consuming a lot of carbohydrates (energy in), we are filling our bodies with more fuel than we are using. The more sugar you consume the more insensitive your body becomes to insulin. Lack of insulin sensitivity creates higher blood sugar levels ultimately leading to increased weight gain and potential health problems such as diabetes and heart disease as the body has no option other than to store the excess sugar as fat.
So does this just simply mean restrict your intake of carbohydrates and you will lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle? Unfortunately not. On the flip side of over consuming carbohydrates, is restricting them. Restricting carbs means your body has no fuel for energy or survival and therefore needs to look in to other reserve tanks within your body. Protein will be discussed further down, however it is important to understand the link between protein and carbohydrates when considering eating for weight gain or loss.
Even though protein is needed in the body for the work that only it can perform (development and maintenance of body cells and muscle), it will sacrifice its use to provide energy if other energy sources are limited. Unlike carbohydrates and fats, the body does not store sources of protein for future use, therefore if the need arises the body must sacrifice its own tissue structure (usually in the form of muscle mass) and burn this for energy. This is why starvation always results in the wasting away of muscle mass, not just fat. This is an important factor to consider when trying to lose weight. It is also important to consider this when aiming to ‘tone up’, as toning up is the result of having more muscle mass and less body fat, therefore giving the appearance of being toned and lean.
It is important to manage your carb intake however restricting them is not the answer.
Don't forget the importance of dietary fibre
We’ve all heard that we need fibre in our diets to ensure our digestive process is kept running clean and healthy. However, aside from that dietary fibre provides other benefits that our body misses out on when restricting carbohydrates in our diet.
Fibre, also known as roughage, is the part of plant-based foods (grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans) that the body can not break down. Fibre adds bulk to our diet, a key factor in both losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight. Adding bulk can help you feel full sooner. Since fibre can not be digested it stays in the stomach longer than other foods, therefore that feeling of fullness will stay with you much longer. High-fibre foods such as fruits and vegetables are also low in calories, so by adding fibre to your diet, it’s easier to reduce your calorie intake if required.
A diet high in fibre can also aid in fat loss by regulating your blood sugar levels, this is achieved by maintaining our body’s fat-burning capacity and avoiding insulin spikes that leave us feeling drained and craving unhealthy foods. Eating plenty of fibre can also move fat through your digestive system at a faster rate so that less of it can be absorbed. And when you fill up on high fibre foods such as fruit, you’ll also have more energy for exercising.