This post is the first in a series of carbohydrate exploration. This series will uncover and demystify carbohydrates for what they are, what they do for our body, and all the hype that we hear in the media.
When did carbohydrates become evil?
I remember the Fat-Free Fad in the 1990’s? Fat was considered evil and manufactured butter powder was considered healthier than naturally produced butter.
If you think about it, nutritional confusion is nothing new to the American population. But the truth is, carbohydrates are such a broad category and not all carbs are created equal. So, it isn’t fair to lump all carbohydrate into one bunch and call them bad.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are made from plants. Since the beginning of plant life on earth, plants have had the ability to take energy from the sun, carbon dioxide, and water to make carbohydrates in the form of glucose, a simple sugar. This process is called photosynthesis. This process of making carbohydrates provides the plant with fuel for growth.
Organisms that lacked the ability to perform photosynthesis (aka humans) flourished since they were able to obtain the glucose required for brain function from eating the carbohydrates in plants.
Why do we need carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. The glucose from the carbohydrates is absorbed into the body and can be used for immediate energy or stored as fat for long-term storage.
Your brain is carbohydrates main consumer. In fact, your brain occupies only 2% of your body weight but consumes about 20% of your body’s oxygen and up to 50% of your body’s glucose. Have you ever wondered why your brain needs so much energy? You brain has more than 80 billion neurons, sending and receiving electrical signals 24 hours a day, creating complex thoughts and emotions. That requires a lot of energy!
Carbohydrates provide fiber: the plant material that doesn’t break down when you digest food. Fiber can be found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Fiber aids in digestion which helps regularity.
In addition, research has shown that diets rich in fiber are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
Calories = energy
Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes are nutrient-dense. Think of it like getting more bang for your buck! They are high in nutrients, containing vitamins, minerals, and fiber but relatively low in calories, 4 calories for gram.
Carbohydrate Bottom Line
Carbohydrates are necessary for brain and body health. But not all carbohydrates are created equal. Refined sugars, white bread, and other processed foods high in carbs are unhealthy and not nutrient-dense as they are processed foods that have had all of their nutrients stripped out.
On the other hand, fruits and other plant foods that are naturally high in carbohydrates and contain fiber (such as vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) also contain antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that are critical for good health. These carbohydrates are nutrient-dense are key to lifelong health.
Still not convinced?
It is no surprise that Americans are not the healthiest population. The healthiest populations in the world, called “Blue Zones”, have thrived on carbohydrate-centric diets consuming corn, rice, wheat, or barley, plus lots of vegetables and fruits.
Unlike recent (from 1970’s through the present) diets, programs, and food trends the Blue Zones have provided on concept for hundreds of years: it is extremely important to eat a varied and large amount of whole plant foods every day.