Carbohydrates; arguably the most popular macronutrient. And for good reason! There is nothing like a sweet warm donut on a Sunday morning, or a comforting bowl of pasta after a long day. And nothing quite compares to a sticky sweet cinnamon roll fresh out of the oven. With summer approaching, it’s hard not to drool over the thought of a soft baked pretzel, or hot bag of popcorn from your favorite stadium. Throw in your favorite adult beverage and we have the perfect carb fest. So, what makes this delicious macronutrient so craveable? Let’s look a little deeper.
Carbohydrates are one of the four macronutrients our body needs for fuel. A macronutrient is a nutritive component of food that our body requires for energy (1). In other words, they are what we need to survive. The four macronutrients are water, fat, protein, and our beloved, carbohydrates. Carbs can be found in a wide variety of foods; those that are nutrient dense including whole grains, beans, potatoes, fruits and vegetables, and those that are energy dense including the delicious donuts, cinnamon rolls, and pretzels we were drooling over earlier. There are many functions of carbohydrates in our body, but they are mainly used as an energy source. Carbs turn into glucose which supports many of our bodily functions, including physical activity.
Although they keep us moving, let’s talk a little more about the types of carbohydrates before we commence carb loading. You may have heard the terms simple carbohydrate and complex carbohydrate. The difference between the two has to do with the chemical structure of the food and how fast your body is able to digest it. Those nutrient dense carbs, also known as complex carbohydrates, that come from whole grains, beans and fruits and veggies are going to take longer to digest and won’t spike your blood sugar quite as fast as a simple carb. A simple carbohydrate, which includes the energy dense donuts, pretzels and baked goodies, can cause hazardous spikes in your blood sugar, leaving you at risk for some serious health issues including weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol.
So what do we do about carbs then? Do we avoid them like so many diets recommend? Do we eat them before working out or after? Are potatoes really too high in carbs? The answer is complex (get it?). For many of us the type of carbohydrate is way more important than the timing or the amount. In fact, there is no recommended limit to how many carbs we should be consuming. The recommendation is that you should be consuming roughly half of your daily calories from carbohydrates (2). It is also recommended that you focus on filling your plate with complex carbs which contain high amounts of fiber, B vitamins and nutrients that aid in keeping you healthy and happy. Quality over quantity, like many things in life.