Carbohydrates


Carbohydrates are sometimes looked at in a negative light in our modern, fad-diet nutritional culture. It is a mistake, however, to dismiss all carbs as bad carte blanche.

Just as there are better and worse sources of proteins and fats, there are also better and worse sources of carbohydrates. Until you understand how incredibly vital carbohydrates are to your body’s function, you may be missing out on an integral part of your nutritional plan.

What Is It?

Carbohydrates get their name from their chemical structure: they contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are also one of the three macronutrients, better known as the body’s main source of energy and a primary contributor to the calorie content in food. Put simply, carbohydrate is a term used to refer to the sugars, starches, and plant fibers found in our everyday diets that can help fuel our bodies so they may function properly.

What Is Its Biological Role?

The biological role [1] of carbohydrates is similar to the other two macronutrients; it helps your body maintain proper function by providing it with an energy source that your body is unable to make on its own.

Carbohydrates are taken in by the body and then broken down into sugar which helps the body function. Excess carbohydrates can also be converted to glycogen and stored this way in the body’s muscles until needed at a later time.

Carbohydrates are also used to help your brain produce chemicals it needs, such as serotonin which is responsible for regulating your mood. The brain also breaks down carbohydrates and uses them as fuel to help send messages to the rest of your body.

How Does it Help Bodybuilders and People Who Work Out?

Anyone who takes part in particularly strenuous activity can benefit from carbohydrates. This is where the stereotype of athletes “carb-loading” [2] before a race or game came about.

You see, without enough carbohydrates to provide the energy your body needs to perform, it will turn to proteins in the body and start burning those as a fuel source. Bodybuilders especially need to avoid this, because putting your body in a situation where it burns the specific type of fuel needed to build muscles (protein) is going to prevent them from reaching their goals.

Just the same, athletes like runners or soccer players will not have sufficient energy to participate in their sport without having injured or overly tired muscles.

What Foods Contain It?

Carbohydrates are not found in meat, but can be found in a great many plant sources as well as in dairy products. Examples are milk, cheese, beans, peas, corn, potatoes, and grains.

How Much of It Do You Need?

How many carbohydrates you consume daily depends on your caloric intake. A general guideline [3] is that your carbohydrate intake should be between 45 and 65 percent of your total caloric intake. Where you land in this recommended range can change, however, depending on your health and specific fitness goals.

Athletes and pregnant people are both groups that routinely use more carbohydrates and may need to consume a higher percentage. Anyone with diabetes needs to consume less carbohydrates in order to control their blood glucose levels.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Much Of It?

While your body does need carbohydrates to function, there is such a thing as too much. When you eat carbohydrates, your body will immediately take any it needs and convert them to fuel; any leftover carbohydrates will initially be stored in your muscles as glycogen.

However, if you don’t utilize that glycogen before the next time you consume carbohydrates, your body will eventually tap out its ability to store glycogen and will end up storing the leftover carbohydrates as fat. Repeating this process overtime can lead to weight gain and eventually obesity.

If you eat too many of the wrong kinds of carbohydrates (think bread and candy instead of corn and apples) you can also stress your body’s ability to control blood glucose levels which may result in diabetes.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Little Of It?

A diet too low in carbohydrates can lead to both physical and mental fatigue, as well as dizziness, diarrhea, nausea, nutritional deficiencies, and other unpleasant physical symptoms.

If your lack of carbohydrates is accompanied by a lot of protein consumption you also run the risk of over-stressing your kidneys as they try to process that protein to use as fuel, which may lead to permanent kidney damage.

Your body needs carbohydrates to function properly. Without them you end up weak and sick. With too many, you also get sick. This delicate dance of choosing the right type and amount of carbohydrates can be difficult at first.

It is possible, however, by knowing how the things you put in your body will affect it--for better or worse--is the only way to take an active role in your own health and ensure that you give yourself a true chance at being your best self.

References:

[1] Dr. Gebel, Erika. How the Body Uses Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats. Diabetesforecast.com, 2011.

[2] The Mayo Clinic. Carbohydrate-Loading Diet. Mayoclinic.org, 2015.

[3] The Mayo Clinic. Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit Into A Healthy Diet. mayoclinic.org,2015.