Know your carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for our body and help supply our brain and muscles with the energy they need to function and perform. The carbohydrates we eat are broken down into glucose, which then provides the necessary energy to fuel the day and/or a tough workout. Carbohydrates also aid in ensuring that proteins and fats are utilized correctly within the body.

Where are carbohydrates found?

Carbohydrates are found in a variety of different foods, and there are three types: starches, sugars and fiber. Examples of foods high in starch are bread, cereal, pasta and potatoes. Examples of foods high in sugars include fruits, milk, candy, cake and soda. Fiber is also found in fruits and vegetables, as well as grains (i.e. oatmeal, brown rice, multigrain cereal).

Simple vs. complex carbohydrates

The type of carbohydrate you consume determines how your body will utilize the energy. The two basic types of carbohydrates are simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly. These types of carbohydrates give us a “quick burst” of energy, but not long-term or sustainable energy. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are digested much slower and deliver important vitamins, minerals and fiber along with more sustainable energy.

What does this mean for the average person? Let’s look at a morning breakfast example. If you have a bowl of oatmeal with strawberries for breakfast, you will be supplying your body with mostly complex and some simple carbohydrates to ensure you will have the energy to start your day and sustain your energy levels until lunch. Conversely, if you only have a bowl of high-sugar cereal, your body will digest and use the energy from breakfast immediately, which could leave you feeling hungry and tired later in the morning. You feel this way because your body has used up the energy from the simple carbohydrates and is now resorting to using other methods to fuel your muscles and brain. So, try and consume more complex carbohydrates. If you play sports or exercise recreationally, you also need the ample energy from complex carbohydrates to help propel you through a game or workout.

What happens if you don’t get enough carbohydrates?

If you do not consume enough carbohydrates throughout the day, your body starts relying on other methods to meet energy demands, which could include breaking down muscle for energy. This break-down of muscle is especially detrimental if you are an athlete or a recreationally active individual, as you want to maintain as much muscle mass as possible. When the body runs out of carbohydrates for fuel (which we want as our main fuel source) and turns to the breakdown of proteins and fats, we can experience negative side effects such as lightheadedness, fatigue, dizziness, headaches and constipation. To prevent the breakdown of muscle protein, try and consume a meal with complex carbohydrates every three to five hours during the day. Be sure to consume protein at these meals to further reduce muscle protein breakdown.

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet. Ideally, choosing complex carbohydrates and a combination of healthier simple carbohydrates will provide the best blend of nutrients, fiber and energy. Get creative and keep that energy going!

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