Carbohydrate: Friend or Foe?

Every decade or so there emerges a new villain in the nutrition world, and I would give this era’s title to carbohydrate. In the 1990’s, fat was shamed, but with the popularity of the Atkin’s diet, fat graciously handed the reigns to its macronutrient reciprocal, carb. However, has carbohydrate truly earned this reputation, or has it been misunderstood?

The thing is, carbohydrate is in the majority of food you eat – and it is there for a reason. Talking chemistry, a carbohydrate is technically the combination of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen. The same elements that are found in the air you breath, the diamonds you wear, and the nightly stars you admire. I will admit things can get complicated, because carbohydrate can then be broken down into smaller categories, such as starches, fibers, and simple sugars. For now, I’m just going to introduce the infamous component of fruit, pasta, and baked goods (just to name a few).

If you take away the glamour and emotion tied to food, and instead look at it from a primal perspective, food is needed for energy. Without energy, you would not exist. It fuels your body’s movements as well as your mind’s thoughts. Luckily, because it breaks down into glucose, carbohydrate is one nutrient that has the raw materials needed to keep us ticking.

I like to think of carbohydrate as your mother’s favorite child – when it is around, it tends to get all the attention. After devouring a hardy breakfast of buttermilk waffles with syrup, you are now in a “fed” state. Both of these foods are weakly configured and loaded with carb, therefore minimal effort and time is needed to get the glucose to your blood stream.  From here, a cascade of events happen, including the release of insulin to make sure the glucose is used or finds a home. A human body strives for homeostasis, especially when talking about serum glucose (aka blood sugar) levels, and takes this job very seriously. Your blood likes some glucose to keep it company, but gets aggravated when too much of it loiters around. 

As Einstein said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” For me, this quote says it all. If you eat a meal that has a lot of carbohydrate, your body is going to be bombarded with energy that wants to be used quickly. If you don’t use it up, your body is now left with the responsibility of taking care of it. It can’t just “destroy” the available glucose, but instead will store it for another day. Glucose stockpiles are created and saved in your muscles and liver, and after these organs become saturated goes on to build fatty acids. These embody the new “home” I was speaking of, and it is not exactly what anyone trying to rid of already existing fat wants to hear. So, like any jealous sibling will tell you, having too much of the favored child around can cause annoying problems.

Depending on your motive, you may want LOTS of fuel, or you may want to keep it to a minimum (are you getting ready to run a marathon, or about to finish your work day from the comfort of your computer chair?). If you are fairly sedentary after your morning waffles, to anyone striving for weight loss, that rush of glucose is more of a menace.

So what’s the answer to carbohydrate? Moderation!

Your personal definition of moderation depends on the lifestyle you live. Are you extremely active? If so, you can benefit from a greater portion of your calories coming from carbohydrate. However, if you are trying to lose weight, keep your portions smaller. Don’t neglect starchy foods, just don’t hog out, and choose them wisely. The rule of thumb for an individual is limiting a starchy food to ¼ of your plate. The other portions should be ¼ of a lean-protein dense food, and the remaining ½ should consist of a light, non-starchy vegetable. For example, if you prepared grilled chicken, sweet potato and steamed broccoli - the chicken is your protein, the sweet potato is your carbohydrate, and the broccoli is your non-starchy vegetable. Now portion them appropriately (the broccoli should be the bulk).

This article could really go on and on. Entire books have been written about carbohydrate. I will pick up with more information in future articles, but the first step is understanding the basics. I wish to leave you with these take away points:

- Some sources of carbohydrates are better than others when it comes to your health. Like people, carbohydrate is only as good as the company it keeps. When fiber hangs around, carbohydrate’s likeability factor gets a boost. Processed baked goods are low in fiber, whereas fresh fruit is packed with it.

- Sugar is a simple form of carbohydrate, and food manufacturers love to add it to their products (Why? Because it tastes fantastic). If your snack came to you in a box, read the label. Odds are you are eating more carbohydrate than you think. Quite honestly, this is the biggest issue I encounter when working with individuals that wish to lose weight. We tend to be oblivious to what was added to our food.

- You always want to get more bang for your buck. Since you are limiting carb-dense foods to 1/4 your plate, make sure they come with copious amounts of vitamins and minerals. Brown rice is more nutritionally dense than white, and whole grains more beneficial than refined. Use carb to your benefit, it's not all that bad once you get to know it.