Carbohydrates, the hot commodity of the macronutrient trio; fat and protein really don’t get much attention with this leading lady always popping up in conversation. However, somewhere along the way we’ve painted the carbohydrate as “bad” and convinced our society that she’s the root of all our food evils. It’s not the carbohydrate that’s evil, it’s the kind of carbohydrates we’re consuming and when we’re consuming them.

“Let’s get nerdy…”

There are two kinds of carbohydrates, simple & complex. The molecular structure of the carbohydrate is what dictates wether it’s considered simple or complex. As you can imagine, the molecular structure of a complex carb is, well…more…complex than that of a simple carb (groundbreaking, I know).

The various structures of carbs affect the rate of how the body breaks it down (digestion) and what the body does with it (absorption). Most likely, you eat something else with these carbohydrates, perhaps some protein or fat? The presence of protein and/or fat also affects the rate of carbohydrate digestion and absorption. Different structures of carbohydrates have different tastes and textures unique to their structure, along with triggering different enzymatic reactions in the mouth and gut.

Simple or complex, unhealthy or healthy, table sugar or sweet potato, all carbohydrates get broken down into simple sugars first before they’re absorbed by the body. That’s a fact. However, the sweet potato is going to go through this process much slower than the table sugar, this is one of the key things to remember regarding carbohydrates.

The refined and more simple carbohydrates are digested and absorbed quickly, causing an immediate spike in blood sugar levels.

The complex carbs, the “good”, the whole grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. are going to digest much slower. This slow digestion helps in controlling insulin response, energy levels, and overall body composition. It also aids in optimizing fiber, vitamin, and mineral uptake from foods, along with improving satiety (you feel fuller longer!).

“So, keep your complex carb consumption high and your simple carb consumption low. Easy enough right?”

“Wait, but how much should we be eating of the “good” carbohydrates?”

On average, the minimum carbohydrate intake for an individual is 130 grams. Your level of physical activity, amount of muscle mass, age, gender, and even type of activites you do (ie. long-distance runner versus sprinter) play a role in how many carbohydrates you need each day. Individuals that are very active require more than sedentary individuals. Too much carb consumption can result in storage for future use within the body, either in the form of fat or glycogen.

A 1/2 cup or one cupped handful of any cooked grain, be it oatmeal, rice, quinoa, couscous, etc. is roughly 25 grams of carbs. A slice of whole wheat bread, a medium sized fruit, or a half of a sweet potato is also roughly 25 grams of carbohydrates. Try to have five of these 25 gram servings each day. The majority of your carbohydrate intake should be in the morning and afternoon, along with post workout, when your body needs it the most. That may mean having 2 of your 5 servings after a workout or 2 servings for breakfast. Avoid high-carbohydrate and sugary foods in the evening, and especially before bedtime.

“So what does this all mean?”

-Carbohydrates are the primary immediate source of energy for your body.
-Sugar is a carbohydrate.
-Not all carbohydrates are created equal, while all are broken down into simple sugars during digestion, the rate in which this happens varies depending on what kind of carbohydrate it is (simple or complex).
-The variety in digestion rate results in different effects on the body; simple or refined carbohydrates digest very quickly and have negative effects on the body, particularly regarding insulin response. Complex carbs digest at a slower rate and have positive effects on the body.
-Brown rice, fruit, couscous, farro, oatmeal, quinoa, bulgur, whole wheat pastas & breads, and starchy root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and beets are all considered “healthy” complex carbohydrates.
-Aim for 5 servings of 1/2 cup or one cupped handful of carbohydrates per day.
-Depleting yourself of carbohydrates will result in the body seeking other sources of energy, muscle mass is generally the first to get targeted (eek!).

“Extra Credit!”

Most store bought breads are jam-packed with additives and perservatives, not to mention the sugary high fructose corn syrups that get new alternative names everyday. When it comes to yeast, the healthy living bacteria that leavens bread & makes our gut nice and healthy, it very rarely is in these mass produced loaves. Want a delicious & super easy whole wheat bread recipe? Check it out, you don’t even need a rolling pin, and I’m baking one as I type.

Happy eating & happy carb-loading!