Health & Nutrition

January 14, 2011

3 GREAT things about carbs and why you need them

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carbohydrates, food, health, nutrition, diet
Photo by by dierk schaefer

Carbohydrates – what have you done for me lately ooh oooh ooh yeah?

Ever since the Atkins craze it seems like carbohydrates just can’t get a break. I have friends who tell me they are watching their carbs. When I ask why, they simply reply they want to lose weight and comment that they don’t need to eat as much as I do since I’m a runner.

When we think of carbohydrates most of us instantly think of breads, pasta, sugar and refined products. But do you ever think of fruit and vegetables?

Runner, athlete, weekend warrior, or domestic goddess YOU need carbohydrates. Instead of focusing on why carbs are bad for you, as anything in excess is, let’s focus on the positive and the three things carbohydrates do for us.

Energy Metabolism
Energy fuels our metabolism and carbohydrates are the gasoline to our bodies. They provide the fuel for our body to work. When we are active our body depends on glucose and glycogen, the stored form of glucose in our liver and muscles. When we deplete those stores our muscles become fatigued.

But what about fat and protein? Yes, they also provide energy — when converted to glucose. Protein yields the same amount of energy per gram as carbohydrates (4kcal per gram) and fat yields even more (9kcal per gram). However, carbohydrates are needed to help metabolize fat!

Brain hungry
Have you ever gotten that shaky feeling? That feeling of listlessness and irritation when you suddenly realize you need to eat and EAT NOW? And when you are faced with a decision you just can’t make up you mind so you eat anything you can get your hands on?

This is your brain without glucose. Glucose is the primary energy source for our brain and nervous system.

“Because neurons cannot store glucose, they depend on the bloodstream to deliver a constant supply of this precious fuel.” – The Franklin Institute Resources for Science Learning

Glucose is so important to our brain and nervous system that they take about half of the total glucose used each day. And of the total energy our body uses when resting, 25% of that is spent by the brain.

Overall health – fighting machine

Not only do carbohydrates provide fuel for our bodies, but they also give us phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds found in plant derived foods that give us taste, color and other characteristics. In our bodies, phytochemicals may act as antioxidants and offer other healthy benefits. For instance, flavonoids (a phytochemical) acting as an antioxidants may help reduce inflammation. Flavonoid containing carbohydrates include berries, citrus fruits and whole grains.

How about tannins? Yes, they are a phytochemical and also act as an antioxidant. Tannins may be found in black-eyed peas, lentils and wine.

Carbohydrates are important for overall health. They provide energy, feed our brain and nervous system and provide those fight-o-chemicals. So if you are monitoring your caloric intake to lose weight, choose carbs that are whole grain and full of fiber such as beans, vegetables and fruit. They’ll leave you feeling full and fueled.

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9 thoughts on “3 GREAT things about carbs and why you need them

  1. Great post Tabitha. I had a friend on the Adkins diet, watched her sit down and eat a plate mounded with bacon one day. It just seemed so wrong. It was. She lost 40 pounds in 2 months but gained back 70 over the next 6 months. Ended up getting gastric bypass. Lets face it, consuming mass amounts of fat and calories does not teach you how to eat.

        1. Well, my doctor advised me to eat complex carbs with plenty of fiber to help avoid crashes. She also recommended carrying a few pieces of hard candy.

    1. Hi Rachel! To fully explain the entire metabolic pathways of carbs, fats and proteins would take a few articles, so I hope this brief explanation helps.

      The saying “Fats burn in a carbohydrate flame” essentially means that we need carbs (glucose) to efficiently break down fatty acids and keep all systems running. A compound derived from the breakdown of glucose is key to the TCA cycle that occurs in the mitochondria of our cells. Since this compound can only come from glucose, an adequate supply of carbs is needed to ensure it (the TCA cycle) runs smoothly. Carbohydrates, fats and proteins all enter the TCA cycle for breakdown and ultimate energy derivation.

      When we are limited or run out of glucose (including our glycogen stores) the system slows down. We may physically recognize this system slow down as “hitting the wall”, fatigue, or sluggishness. While we can still function at this level, it isn’t ideal and the breakdown of fats will be incomplete.

      If you would like to read more about metabolic pathways, check out the book Understanding Nutrition by Whitney & Rolfes. It is the book we used in my nutrition class last Fall. 🙂

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