Today, I thought I’d start a new series on the blog. Many blogs focus on what to eat, but I feel that there doesn’t seem to enough info out there on WHY to eat healthy foods. I figured I’d take you back to basics with a Nutrition 101 series. I plan to go back to the basics and give you clear and detailed information on why you should eat certain foods, and avoid others. This week, I wanted to start with carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates (or carbs) have gotten a horrible rap over the last decade or so, mostly thanks to Dr. Atkins and his followers. Our society seems to be terrified of carbs, which are actually one of the most important food groups, and should make up the majority of your diet.
To some of you, this is old news. To others, you’re thinking, “Ew, carbs! I don’t want to get fat!” Trust me, carbs do not make you fat. Carbohydrates are incredibly important in providing energy for your body. Yes, eating too much or the wrong types of carbohydrates is unhealthy and might make you pack on some pounds, but that’s why I’m here; to teach you what you need to make healthy choices on your own!
What are carbohydrates?
The basic form of a carbohydrate is a sugar molecule. The most common simple sugars (or monosaccharides) are glucose and fructose. Glucose is the same form of sugar that is found in the blood. Fructose is fruit sugar, and is the same stuff found in our evil enemy high fructose corn syrup.
Monosaccharides frequently bond together, creating larger molecules. A two sugar molecule is called a disaccharide. A common disaccharide is sucrose, or table sugar. When many sugars are combined together, they form starches. This is what you find in bread and grains.
Healthy sources of carbohydrates include grains, squash, beans, fruits and vegetables.
What happens to carbs in my body?
Carbs begin to break down the moment they entire your mouth. An enzyme in your saliva, called amylase, breaks the bonds between sugars and starts to pull them back into their simple form. This is the reason why you can hold bread or a cracker in your mouth for a minute or so and slowly begin to taste it getting sweeter. Crazy, huh?
Surprisingly, no carbohydrate digestion occurs in the stomach. They just kind of chill in there while your protein is being broken down by the stomach activity.
Everything moves from the stomach into the small intestine, where digestive enzymes get back to work breaking down any bonds between sugars. By the time it’s done digesting, you’re left with a bunch of glucose molecules that are ready to be used by the body to make energy.
This is where that fun little chemical called insulin comes into play. Insulin is one of those things that you completely ignore until it isn’t functioning properly anymore. You know that awesome (not!) disease called diabetes? Diabetes occurs when your body can’t produce enough insulin, or your insulin receptors aren’t working properly. Then you have to deal with the headaches (possibly even literally) of high blood sugar, injections and constant finger pokes.
Anyway, insulin is normally produced in the pancreas in accordance to the amount needed for the amount of sugar that has been consumed. Insulin attaches to a sugar molecule, which it guides through little gateways in your cells to be stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen to be used as energy later on. Your body will tap into this store when it develops a need for glucose that can’t be met by eating right away. Endurance exercise is one of the main times when glycogen in utilized.
Can you see why sugary treats are more likely to spike your blood sugar than breads and grains? Since the sugar is already in such a simple form, it is broken down incredibly fast, and left in the bloodstream to wait to be stored. Starches take longer to breakdown, since there are so many different molecules, so they don’t have nearly as much of an effect on the blood sugar.
Refined vs. Whole Grains
Grains are a very important source of carbohydrates. However, sometime in the past, manufacturers decided to make it a common practice to refine flour as it is milled, removing the parts of the grain called the bran and the germ, leaving only the starchy endosperm. This ground endosperm is what we all know as all-purpose flour.
The problem with this is that the bran and the germ of the grain are very important parts, nutritionally. The bran is the protective coating around the grain, and contains important nutrients, as well as the majority of the fiber. The germ is the embryo of the grain, which, when fertilized, will form a new plant. It is rich in nutrients and protein.
Most brands of bread enrich their flour, meaning that they artificially add back nutrients that were lost during the milling/refining process. These nutrients aren’t absorbed by the body nearly as well as those that were there originally. Not to mention, the flour is still missing critical protein and fiber!
Whole grains should be your number one source of carbohydrates. Not only are they processed less, but as I stated above, they are much more complete nutritionally. If you’re purchasing bread or bread products, try to ensure that they are made from at least 50% whole grain. The first ingredient on the packaging should be “whole wheat” or something similar, not “enriched flour”.
What nutrients do I get from grains?
Did you know that most whole grain breads contain more iron than even enriched flour breads? Kind of a big deal! Iron is so so important for your body, seeing as it’s one of the main components of your blood! Other minerals that are found in abundance in whole grains are zinc and magnesium.
Whole grains are also rich in B-vitamins, like niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, and vitamin B6. These nutrients play a very important role in how your body makes energy. I’d go into more detail, but it took me a whole semester in biochem to figure out, so I’ll spare you.
What are the best sources of carbohydrates?
Whole grains(* denotes gluten-free)
- Whole wheat
- Brown rice*
- Wild rice*
Squash/ root vegetables
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
- Acorn squash
How many carbs should I be eating?
In general, about half or a little more than half of your daily calories should be coming from carbohydrates. Try having a serving or two at every meal, choosing from the healthier options that I have listed above. Attempt to consume a variety of sources, in order to obtain a wider variety of nutrients.
I hope you’ve learned a little something today about making good carbohydrate choices, and the importance of carbs in your diet!