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Nutrition’s Four Letter Word: CARB!


In the past few years, carbohydrates have really taken a beating in the nutrition community. So much in fact that right now there is a man in Washington that is living off of nothing but potatoes for the next 60 days! He is hoping to prove that they are nutritious and defend their honor. That’s a little extreme for me so I’m just going to blog about it!

First, let’s talk about what a carbohydrate is. A carbohydrate is a string of sugars. As a carbohydrate goes through the digestive process, this string is broken down into single sugars so they can enter the blood stream. At this point it is called blood sugar.

So if all carbohydrates are going to be broken down into the same thing, why would you ever pick an apple over a piece of chocolate cake? Well, the difference is the speed at which the carbohydrate is broken down into a single sugar. When carbohydrates break down too fast, and you don’t need all of that energy, it will most likely be stored as fat.  On the flip side, if you starve your body of carbohydrates it will begin to break down your hard earned muscle in order to get the energy it needs.

From a general health and weight management standpoint, you want this carb sugar to be present in the blood stream but the speed of the breakdown to be slower.

Here are three main things that impact the breakdown of carbohydrates:

  • Fiber – The more fiber the slower the breakdown.
  • Type of sugar – Fructose, found in fruit, breaks down slower than Sucrose, found in table sugar. (Note: Fructose is not to be confused with High Fructose Corn Syrup. That’s a whole different story for another day)
  • The extent to which the carbohydrate has been processed – If you can recognize the food from nature it will most likely break down slowly. If it is shaped like a cartoon animal or begins with “Mc” it will most likely break down very quickly.

Carbohydrates that break down slowly tend to be called “good” and carbohydrates that break down quickly tend to be called “bad.” I don’t really like this terminology because, like the crazy potato guy, I feel all food serves a purpose. Instead, try “long term energy carbs” and “short term energy carbs.” The long term energy carbs are best for your main meals and snacks when you need sustained energy. The short term energy carbs are best during or after a very intense workout when you need to refuel your energy stores quickly.

I’ve mostly discussed the role of carbohydrates in energy, but they are also where we get the majority of our essential vitamins and minerals. If you completely cut them out of the equation you will first notice that you start to get sick more often. As time goes on you are at risk for developing a deficiency and causing permanent damage to your immune system.

Although “no-carb” diets are somewhat mainstream, they use the same mentality as the guy who is eating only potatoes – extreme and ultimately unhealthy. I encourage you to think about what you are eating at each of your meals and be sure to pair a healthy carbohydrate with a lean protein. It will be a delicious combination and ensure you are eating a balanced diet!

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