Carbohydrates in Food
From the Million Dollar Body Club - Join Today and Workout to
Whether it's the low-carb beer you
can sip at your local watering hole, or Monica and Rachel slinging Atkins quips
on the latest episode of Friends, carbohydrates are the new "bad guy" du
jour. Fast food joints are offering "protein style" bunless burgers. A KFC ad
campaign features a skinny dude chomping on fried chicken, implying that a 470
calorie, 28 g of fat (8 g of it saturated), 1230 mg of sodium, 0 g of fiber
Extra Crispy Chicken Breast will actually help you lose weightbecause it's low
carb. It's getting ridiculous!
Funny thing is, most people don't
even know what a carbohydrate is or what it doeswhich is sad indeed,
considering it's the body's primary source of fuel and a powerful tool for even
the most casual of athletes. Like any food group, carbs should be eaten in
moderation, but they have an important job to do, so let's shed some light on
them. Sit down, set aside that tub of greasy poultry, and let's take a look at
our much-maligned little buddy, the carbohydrate.
At their simplest, carbs are
sugars, most notably glucose. Also known as blood sugar or dextrose, glucose
flows through the bloodstream, where, thanks to the conductor insulin, it is
absorbed by every single cell in your body and converted into energy. Excessive
amounts of carbs are stored as fat, so it's important not to overeat them. But
carb consumption should be directly associated with activity level, since you
burn them quickly whenever you do any level of exercise. Excessive carb
consumption can make you fat and lethargic, but so can excessive protein, fat,
or alcohol consumption. Without enough carbohydrates, your body's ability to
perform, both athletically and mentally, becomes compromised.
Carbs come in several forms. They
can be simple carbs, complex carbs, or fiber, all of which play important roles
in the dietary scheme of things. Let's look at them one by one.
Also called "sugars," there are
six types of simple carbs. Three of them, the monosaccharides, are carbs at
their most basic: glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Glucose, as we discussed, is the
body's primary energy source. If you get too much, it's stored as glycogen.
When your blood sugar is low, your body taps into these glycogen stores.
However, in the event that your glycogen stores are also maxed out, then the
glucose is stored as fat.
Fructose, or fruit sugar, is the
second monosaccharide. Unlike glucose, fructose doesn't go straight into your
system. Instead it passes through the liver, where it is usually turned into
glycogen, or occasionally glucoseand, as is the case with all sugars, the
too-much-turns-to-fat thing still applies. Depending on who you talk to, or
whose scientific report you read, this extra step can either be a good thing or
a bad thing. Some sources insist that it increases triglycerides, or fat
levels, in your blood. Others claim that this extra step prevents blood sugar
levels from spiking.
The third monosaccharide, the
cosmically titled galactose, only occurs naturally in dairy products. Like
fructose, galactose must pass through the liver to be processed.
The other three simple carbs are
the disaccharides, meaning, on a molecular level, that they are just two
monosaccharides pasted together. They are called sucrose, maltose, and lactose.
The most famous of these is
sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar. It consists of a glucose molecule and
a fructose molecule. When you consume sucrose, the glucose is quickly digested
while, as you may have guessed, the fructose heads for the liver.
In an interesting aside, it's
worth noting that high-fructose corn syrup, another villain in the world of
healthy eating, is actually approximately 50% glucose and 50% fructose, making
it very similar in composition to sucrose. All the hysteria over "HFCS" may
indeed be warranted, insofar as Americans are eating too much of itbut at
the end of the day, too much sugar is too much sugar, whether it's HFCS or
common everyday sucrose.
The second disaccharide is
maltose, which is two glucose molecules bonded together. Later we'll learn
about starch, one of the complex carbohydrates. When starch is broken down, it
turns first to maltose, then glucose.
The final disaccharide is lactose,
which comes from dairy products. Lactose is a combo of glucose and galactose.
Lactose intolerance happens when your stomach doesn't have enough of the
special enzymes needed to separate the two simple sugars.
So there you have the simple
carbohydrates. Let's move on to the complex ones.
Complex carbs are just a bunch of
simple carbohydrates bonded together. The fancy name for them is
polysaccharides. Again, there are three kinds: glycogen, starch, and fiber.
Glycogen, as we learned earlier,
is the way we store glucose for easy access. There's no way to eat the stuff,
so there's really no need to discuss it further.
Starch is the vegetable answer to
glycogenthousands, sometimes millions of glucose molecules bonded
together. Corn, potatoes, yams, rice, and other grains are some of the
better-known starch sources. It's generally believed that complex carbs,
because they are complex, break down more slowly in our system. However, when
starch-containing foods are overly processed, they become a lot more like sugar
than starch, meaning that your body pumps them into your blood more
An interesting way to see this in
action is to take a piece of white bread, which is heavily processed white
flour, and put it on your tongue. Notice, after a second, that the taste
becomes sweet. That's the sugars breaking down, right there on your tongue. Now
try it with whole grain bread. It doesn't work the same, does it?
Although the overprocessing of the
starch is partly the reason for this, another reason white bread converts to
sugar so fast is that in the refining process, the wheat is stripped of our
third complex carb, the real key to slowing down the absorption of glucose:
Fiber is the most complex of the
carbohydratesso complex, in fact, that the human body can't digest it. It
just passes right through. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber turns to a gel on your insides and actually soaks up cholesterol.
You'll find it in oats, beans, carrots, and apple peel. Insoluble fiber, which
shows up in wheat bran and in kidney, pinto, and lima beans, just goes right
through you and is essential in keeping you regular.
While these are very important
functions, for our purposes, both types of fiber do one other crucial thing:
they slow the rate at which your blood absorbs glucose. So for example, if you
eat an apple, the sugar doesn't blast into your system because the fiber in the
skin holds it back. This gives you a steady flow of energy and reduces the
chance of a blood sugar spike, which is great becauseas we all
knowwhen blood has too much sugar in it, it converts the extra sugar to
fat. Also, when your blood gets too much sugar, your pancreas generates extra
insulinwhich, once it's dealt with the sugar, will have nothing to do
except cause you to crave more sugar, which you really don't need.
Fats and proteins also slow the
absorption of glucose into the blood. With this in mind, Canadian scientists
came up with something called the glycemic index (GI), a scale of how fast the
sugar in carbohydrate foods enters your body. Foods that are mostly carbs with
little or no fiber, protein, or fat, such as white bread, rush into your blood.
These foods earn higher ratings on the glycemic index. Foods with a slower
absorption rate earn a lower rating. The trick is to create a diet that is rich
in low-rated foods. When you eat higher-rated foods, make sure to mix them with
lower-rated foods, to slow absorption.
Of course, there are times when a
blood sugar rush is a good thing. For example, if you're bonking, or running
out of blood sugar while being active, you need to recharge fast. Since your
glucose and glycogen are low to empty at this point, a sugar spike isn't going
to provide enough glucose to create fat. This is when a banana or a sports
drink like Gatorade® comes in handy.
You can also take advantage of low
blood sugar with a recovery snack that is 4 parts carbs to 1 part protein. The
carbs will rush into your system, replenishing your glycogen stores, and the
small amount of protein will piggyback with them, heading right to the muscles
and beginning resynthesis. Oatmeal and fruit juice with protein powder are good
examples of 4 to 1 snacks.
It's important to remember that
the GI rating shouldn't be a primary factor in food choice. Just because a food
doesn't rate high on the index doesn't mean it's good for you. Both Coke and
peanut M&Ms have acceptable ratings. Coke's carbonation hampers digestion,
lowering the GI, but it's loaded with empty calories and has no nutritional
value, so there's no point in drinking it. M&Ms have all that fat from the
chocolate and peanuts slow things down, but they too have little nutritional
value and they're full of saturated fat. When you're operating on a calorie
deficit, you need to make every calorie count. These foods count for
Furthermore, the glycemic index is
relatively new to the world of nutrition. While it was founded on solid
science, research is still being conducted as to its validity for weight loss.
However, when used in conjunction with fiber intake, the case becomes much
stronger, as there is more and more research indicating the benefits of
Simply put, carbohydrates are
fuel. If abused, yes, they can be evil, but so can proteins and fats. If eaten
properly, they will increase the energy you have throughout the day and during
your workouts. A meal filled with lean protein and fiber-rich
carbohydrates will help create a healthier you in ways that KFC never, ever
The New Glucose
Revolution Complete Guide to Glycemic Index Values by Jennie Brand-Miller,
Kaye Foster-Powell, Susanna Holt, and Johanna Burani
Good Carbs, Bad Carbs: An
Indispensable Guide to Eating the Right Carbs for Losing Weight and Optimum
Health by Johanna Burani and Linda Rao