Macronutrients: Part 1 – Carbohydrates

February 10, 2023

Carbs have a bad reputation. But they are essential for our living and function. To help you make better choices on how to best fuel your body, we’re going to give you an understanding what a carbohydrate is, how and why it has earned a bad reputation, what carbs are best for health, and considerations for counting carbs.

Carbohydrates serve as our primary energy source. All the cells in our body need energy to function. For example, your eye cells need energy for you to see, feet cells need energy for you to walk, and brain cells need energy for you to think. Last week, we introduced that foods are made up of three large compounds: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Your body first selects and prefers the fuel it gets from carbohydrates.

When we look at what we eat, we’re really talking about how you fuel your body. The quality of carbohydrate is very important in determining weight, blood glucose, and overall health. Good quality carbohydrates include complex and unrefined carbs from legumes, vegetables, whole-grains, and fruits. On the opposite end, refined carbohydrates are processed foods where often nutrients and healthy substances are either stripped down and removed or not present at all. Often these items are high in sugar and cause high spikes in our blood glucose (sugar) which can then at times be followed by lows. This is where carbs get a bad name.

This dysregulation (high highs followed by low lows) of blood glucose can cause our bodies to not respond to insulin, a hormone that helps glucose clear our blood stream and be used or stored by our body. There is a variety of research showing that this poor response to insulin is behind unwanted weight gain, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and a variety of other health issues.

The two primary components of carbs on a food or drink label include fiber and sugars.

  1. Fiber is matter found in whole foods that is essential to gut health and immune function. Higher intake of fiber is associated with lower risk of heart disease, insulin resistance (which we talked about earlier) and diseases of the colon. Some fiber is not digestible by us but increases stool bulk and holds extra water; helping to feed our healthy gut bacteria. Other fiber is absorbed and helps to slow digestion, improves our sensitivity to insulin (think glucose regulation) and carries out cholesterol. Excellent sources of fiber include legumes, whole-grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
  2. Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to food or beverages when they are processed or prepared. They do NOT include the naturally occurring sugars that are contained within whole foods such as fruits. Added sugars not only lack protective mechanisms but they can also interfere with our body’s ability to best regulate glucose. These are seen more in carbohydrate-rich foods and beverages that have been moderately to heavily processed such as cereals, white breads, pop, cookies, cakes and other desserts.

If you are on a meal plan that limits or requires you to identify your carbohydrate intake, there are two ways to do when looking at a nutrition label.

  1. Total carbohydrates, which includes fiber.
  2. Net carbohydrates, which is total carbohydrates minus the fiber

This is important because if you are following a low-carb plan you may be having a hard time getting in basic whole food fruits and vegetables. Looking at net carbs vs. total carbs can allow you to get more plant-based, whole foods in your diet which is important for your overall health.

Here’s a challenge for this week. Make a conscious decision to swap one refined (processed) carb for one nature-based carb, per day. Examples are listed below:

  • Swap orange juice (processed) for an orange (whole food, nature carb)
  • Swap processed cereal for steel cut oats (bonus if you add a healthy fat or protein to go along with it!)
  • Swap a bagel for a spinach, mushroom, and pepper omelet
  • Swap white spaghetti pasta for spaghetti squash or chickpea pasta noodles
  • Swap white sandwich bread with 100% whole wheat or flax pita, or butter lettuce wrap
  • Swap a dinner roll for a side salad
  • Swap a cola for unsweetened tea or no-sugar added kombucha
  • Swap a store-bought, packaged cookie with a homemade oat-based cookie
  • Swap ice cream for plain Greek yogurt and fresh berries