Truth About Carbohydrates

Are all carbs equal?
It's a well-known fact that a diet rich in carbohydrates is proven way to satiate your appetite and makes you feel fuller. On the other hand, a diet low in carbohydrates can actually cause temporary weight loss. However, this temporary weight loss is not without some serious health risks. This presents a serious diet dilemma of what one should do while selecting a carb diet.

The solution to this dilemma is quite simple. All you need to know is 'what to eat?' Yes, it's all about making wise carbohydrate choices.

Salient features of carbohydrates

Let's first review what carbohydrates are, where are they found and what do they do for our bodies.

Definition: Simply speaking, carbohydrates (or saccharides) are sugars and starches, which serve as a fuel for our body systems.

Functions: Carbohydrates are our body's major fuel for each of the functions that it performs e.g. respiration, reproduction, mobility, circulation and nerve signal transmission (the function of CNS). They actually give our body the required energy for the skeleton, muscles and central nervous system (including brain and spinal cord). The performance and function of our brain, in particular, specifically depends on carbohydrates e.g. functions like learning, thought process, thinking etc., cannot be performed without a continuous supply of glucose from the blood.

Sources: The common sources of carbohydrates include fruits (carbs are found in the form of fructose), various vegetables, beans, several dairy products; food produced from grains, and also the sugar, honey and corn syrup.

Types: After digestion, our body converts carbohydrates into glucose, which is utilized by our cells as a fuel soruce. Depending on the same, there are two major types of carbohydrates:

  • Simple carbohydrates: These carbs are broken down quickly and easily by the body into glucose.
  • Complex carbohydrates: These carbs are broken down slowly and take more time to enter the blood circulation.

The role of insulin:

Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by pancreas, a digestive gland. The main role if insulin is that it controls the blood sugar (glucose) levels in our blood. Once all carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, insulin helps the glucose enter the muscles / tissues' cells. The remaining glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles for future use (this is the same glucose that we use during our exercise / workouts). Any additional / remaining glucose is stored in the body as 'fat'.

Are all carbohydrates equal?

With respect to their structure and food value, carbohydrates can be classified into three types:

  1. Simple carbohydrates:

    These carbs are made up of one or two sugar units that are broken down and absorbed quickly into the blood circulation.

    For the same reason, some modern studies have shown that some of the food belonging to simple carbohydrate group can actually cause acute increase in blood glucose levels which naturally results in more insulin release from pancreas, eventually resulting in enhanced appetite and more risk of fat storage.

    Examples: Sugar, candies, honey, syrups, candy, honey, jams, jellies, molasses, juices and soft drinks all contain simple carbohydrates. While fruits primarily have simple carbohydrates, they are also enriched in valuable vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. Similarly, dairy products e.g. milk contain simple carbohydrates along with proteins, calcium and other nutrients.

  2. Complex carbohydrates (starch):

    They consist of more than two sugar units. Brown rice and refined (white bread) form are some perfect examples of such carbs. They have a more complex structure and hence, take more time to be digested and absorbed into the blood. For the same reason, they cause only an average increase in insulin secretion which results in stabilization of appetite and only a few carbs are stored as a fat.

    Examples: Unrefined or 'whole grain' carbohydrates commonly found in whole grain pasta, brown rice and bran cereals take more time to be digested. They also have plenty of vitamins, fiber and minerals which is essential for health and growth.

    Legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and soybeans contain complex carbohydrates but also have plenty of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein.

    Grain products usually have complex carbohydrates. However, they also contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein.

    Vegetables contain variable amounts of both simple and complex types of carbohydrates and several nutrients e.g. vitamins, minerals and are also a great source of fiber, and water.

  3. Indigestible carbohydrates (fiber).

    They cannot be broken down by the body into smaller units for absorption and hence are not an energy source for the cells. However, they are a good source of health especially with respect to their role in promoting better digestion of other foods. They also prevent us from constipation.

It is clear from the above discussion that not all carbohydrates are equal and each type has its own structure, function and role in the body. Therefore, making a wise carbohydrate food choice is essential and should be done in the light of your fitness goal i.e. weight loss, muscle building or just maintaining your fitness.

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