Nutritionist: What’s the real deal with carbs?

Carbohydrates are a mysterious subject. They come into and out of food fashion just as any good ’80s outfit would. Fashion aside, how does a registered nutritionist and dietitian feel about carbohydrates? Should we forever banish the bread bowl and turn away the creamy goodness of mac-and-cheese? Here is the simple argument from the expert.
A good place to start on the hefty subject is to understand the chemical makeup of all carbohydrates. A carb is any type of food component that is composed of sugar molecules. The single sugar molecule can be in the form of glucose (the most abundant form), fructose (found in fruits and the sweetest form), or galactose (found in milk). These three single molecules bond to form larger compounds: starch, glycogen (the animal form on starch), and fiber.
Most individuals think that a carbohydrate is only those food items that contain flour or sugar. These foods only make up about half of the carbohydrate list. Carbs comprised 75% of all of the food groups. Here are the carbohydrate food groups:

  • Fruits
  • Starchy Vegetables
  • Dairy
  • Grains
  • Sweets

The main role of carbohydrates in our body is the creation and storage of energy. When carbs are consumed, the beta cells in the pancreas release insulin in order to carry out one of four functions: promote uptake of glucose to muscle and adipose tissue, convert glucose into the glycogen and store in the liver or muscle cells, promote building of protein, or conversion to fat in adipose tissue.
The Carb Good Side
Glucose molecules (carbohydrate molecules) are extremely efficient in providing our bodies with energy. The nervous system and red blood cells generally use glucose as their primary energy source. Secondly, glucose is very good at converting into other materials (protein and fat) when appropriate. This conversion is especially useful during times of starvation. Glucose (sugar) is converted to fatty acids and put into storage for future use. Lastly, carbs stimulate hormonal regulation in areas like the adrenal glands. This function is especially important for women.
The Carb Bad Side
The consumption of carbohydrates in moderate amounts are a very healthy component to any diet. However, consumption of high or erratic amounts of carbohydrate (in any form) lead to possible unwanted weight gain, deregulation of hormonal balance, and increased risk for insulin resistance and/or diabetes. When carbohydrates are overconsumed, insulin will signal the metabolic system to convert the glucose molecules to fatty acids. This fatty acids are then put storage in adipose tissue. It is important to note that this conversion is irreversible.
Secondly, when carbohydrate intake is erratic, the beta cells in the pancreas have a much harder job of monitoring insulin release which causes a cascading effect on other key hormones such as cortisol.
Lastly, overconsumption and/or erratic consumption of carbohydrates over time will lead to cellular burn out. A great analogy is that when consumption of carbohydrates is not controlled the pancreas is asked to run a marathon daily with burst of sprints every few hours. This is not sustainable for long periods and will lead the insulin resistance and diabetes.
All carbohydrates are not all unhealthy; however, all carbohydrates can cause negative effects if overconsumed. Here is simple advice on carb intake:
Eat small amounts of carbohydrates at one time. Carbs should take up no more than 25% of your meal.
Always pair your carbohydrate intake with a clean protein and, or fat source.
Stick to plant based, low-glycemic carbs when possible.
Limit your grain and fruit intake to 1 – 2 servings per day.
Carbohydrate Go-To’s:
Sweet potatoes
Butternut squash
Brown rice
Black rice
Wild rice
Vegetable Pastas: black bean or red lentil
Gluten-free pastas: brown rice, quinoa
Lentils: red, green
Beans: chickpeas, cannelloni, black, pinto, kidney
For a bonus, here are some great lower glycemic fruit that fit perfectly as a snack when paired with nuts, nut butter, or cheese (raw, grass-fed cheese if possible).
Feature Image: Thinkstock