The Macronutrient Series: Carbohydrates

Welcome Back!

Last week we took a deeper look into dietary fats and how fat benefits the body. This week we finish out our Macronutrient series with a focus on carbohydrates.

Today We Will Focus On:

                –Health benefits of Carbohydrates

                – Types of Carbohydrates

                -How Carb Intake Impacts your Health & Fitness Journey

                –Dietary Carbs for Daily Nutrition

What are Macros:

Let’s start by understanding exactly what macros are. Macros, which is short for Macronutrients, are the nutrients consumed in our diet that provide the most energy including protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Your body needs macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) in large amounts to keep it functioning properly. Foods are categorized into the macronutrient of which they contain the most. For example, chicken is categorized as a protein despite also containing fat, and potatoes are categorized as a carb even though they also contain protein.

Health Benefits of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (Carbs) are a main source of energy for our body; They help fuel our brain, kidneys, heart, muscles, and central nervous system. When we consume carbs, our body breaks it down into glucose, which our body uses for energy. Glucose is a primary fuel source for our brain. However, our brain does not store a significant amount of glucose. Therefore, it is important to replenish the levels by eating carbohydrates. If glucose level falls below adequate levels (low blood sugar or hypoglycemia), you may start to experience brain fog. Glucose is primarily stored in our muscles and liver as glycogen. Glycogen is basically chains of glucose. Whole (complex) Carbs can decrease the inflammation in our bodies and can decrease our plaque build up to keep our heart healthy.

Types of Carbohydrates

There are three main types of carbohydrates: starches, fiber, and sugars. Starches  are often referred to as complex carbohydrates. They are found in grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables; like potatoes and corn. Complex carbohydrates require more time to be broken down into glucose, which keeps us fuller for longer periods of time, hence being complex. Sugars are known as simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates can occur naturally in food: vegetables, fruits, milk, and honey; or can be added to foods: processed foods, syrups, soda, juice and sweets. Simple sugars are more readily and rapidly broken down into glucose, which keeps us full for shorter periods of time. Since these types of carbohydrates do not fill us for long periods, we have a potential to overeat simple carbohydrates. Overconsumption of simple carbohydrates, especially foods that have added sugars (processed foods, soda, juice, and sweets) can have negative consequences on our health because of high blood sugar. On the other hand, Complex carbohydrates can reduce inflammation in our bodies and can decrease our plaque build up in our arteries to keep our heart healthy. Fiber is a carbohydrate that aids in digestion, helps you feel full, and keeps blood cholesterol levels in check. Foods high in fiber include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes.

In addition to consuming carbohydrates in our diet through food, we can make carbohydrates (glucose) from protein. Going back to our protein blog a couple of weeks ago, we discussed how protein is broken down into amino acids. There are a group of amino acids called branched chain amino acids that can be converted by our liver and kidneys into glucose. This process called gluconeogenesis and is an important process in maintaining normal blood sugar levels when we sleep or are in a fasting state.

Carbs have 4 calories per gram and the minimal recommended intake for carbohydrate is 130 grams per day for the general population. The amount of carbohydrate that should be consumed depends on body size and activity levels: bigger and/or more active people need more while smaller and more sedentary people require less. Intake is also dependent on dietary fat and protein intake. Every person is unique and will require different intake of macros for proper daily nutrition and to reach individual health goals. The American diet often results in too high of carbohydrate intake, as a result of the overconsumption of simple carbohydrates in our diet. It is important to note that simple carbohydrates are not necessarily bad. However, eating too many simple carbohydrates through processed foods and drinks has the potential over time to negatively impact our health.

How Carb Intake Impacts your Health & Fitness Journey

What you eat before your workout can make a huge impact on your performance. Proper nutrition will help your body recover faster and perform better during fitness activities.

Our muscles are fueled by glucose that comes from carbs. Muscles as discussed before are one of the primary tissues (the other being the liver) in our body that store glycogen. When we eat carbohydrates they are broken down into glucose, which is transported through our blood to the muscles and liver and then stored as glycogen. This means that muscles store energy from the meals you ate the previous day to ensure it has the energy to function properly. For short, high-intensity workouts your body will use the stored glycogen (which will break down into glucose) in the muscles and liver for fuel. When planning out a big workout, hike, bike ride, or long run…what you are eating the day before will help your body be prepared for the stress of the workout. Carbohydrates are fast-acting, efficient and a dominant fuel source when exercising.

Studies have shown that simple carbs can help increase glycogen levels during workouts. If you are feeling under fueled before a workout, focus on earing a small snack that is high in simple carbs about 30 minutes before your planned exercise. Simple carbs are easy to digest and will quickly be broken down into glucose to fuel your upcoming workout and give your body the energy it needs. As stated above, simple carbohydrates are not bad and certainly have a purpose when it comes to proper fueling for exercise and quick energy.

Dietary Carbs for Daily Nutrition

Diet culture has led us to believe that carbs are the foods that will cause weight gain and should be avoided when looking to shed pounds. As a nutrition coach I am here to tell you that carbs have their place in our daily nutrition and can be enjoyed without fearing additional weight gain. When we begin to balance our daily nutrition to meet caloric needs, we can begin enjoying foods in moderation and fueling our body to become our healthiest versions. To learn more about how our bodies use the calories we eat, check out How our Bodies Break Down Calories blog.

Whole carbs (Complex Carbs) are minimally processed and contain the fiber found naturally in food, while refined carbs have been processed more and have had the natural fiber removed or changed. Refined carbohydrates tend to cause spikes in blood sugar levels, which can lead to a subsequent crash that can trigger hunger and lead to food cravings. When focusing on moderation, it is important to have a diet rich in whole carbs and limited in refined carbohydrates. Unrefined whole carbs retain many of these vital nutrients and are rich in fiber, which helps your digestive system work well. Fiber helps you feel full, so you are less likely to overeat these foods. That explains why you will feel full longer after eating a bowl of oatmeal compared to the same amount of calories of sugary candy.

Examples of Whole Carbs:

-Whole grains: quinoa, amaranth, barley, brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain pasta and whole-grain breakfast cereals

-Fruits: berries, citrus fruits, melons, apples, pears, bananas and kiwifruit

-Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, yams, corn. peas and carrots

-Legumes: lentils, black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, chickpeas and soybeans

-Non starchy vegetables: leafy greens, spinach, cabbage, asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini and mushrooms

-Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios.

When the diet consists of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates (which the body breaks down rapidly), one may notice elevations in blood triglyceride levels, bad cholesterol, and insulin resistance. Carbohydrates that are digested and absorbed slowly, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can help to control insulin response, energy levels, and body composition.

Wrap up on Macros:

When we place a focus on whole foods, we can enjoy the foods that are refined or highly processed in small amounts. Basically, when we ensure that our plates are rich in nutrient dense, whole foods 80% of the time, we can then enjoy the pizza and cupcakes 20% of the time. Ensuring that we are eating the right amount of fats, protein and carbs for our body’s needs helps ensure that we are fueling our bodies properly and still allowing ourselves to have balance in our nutrition. This way of eating leads to consistently eating the foods our bodies need while allowing ourselves to eat the indulging foods that we enjoy.

We hope that you enjoyed this series on Macronutrients and that it has helped to provide a better understanding of these very important nutrients in our diet. If you would like more information on Macronutrients or would like to know a more detailed understanding of how much Macros you should be consuming in your own diet or how to monitor the Macros you are consuming, please give us the opportunity to assist you by signing up for our First Step Nutritional Coaching Strategy Session. Thank you for your time and we will be back next week…

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