Carbohydrates are an important macronutrient when it comes to our energy levels. When I ask patients what comes to mind with the word carbohydrate, they almost always say the obvious: bread, pasta, and sweets. However these aren’t the other sources of carbohydrates.
When it comes to this important macronutrient, what matters most is the type you eat. About 50% of our total caloric intake in the US is derived from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose which is our preferred source of energy.
Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates: These can be found in foods like white sugar, candy and soda. However, fruit is also considered a simple carbohydrate. The difference between the two is the presence of dietary fiber which blunts the rate in which glucose hits the bloodstream, keeping you satiated and preventing highs and lows in energy. Fruit also provides vitamins and minerals that support our health.
Complex carbohydrates: These include whole grains, vegetables, whole grain breads, rice, starchy vegetables and beans to name a few. These have fiber which will blunt energy spikes and dips.
What is a Healthy Carbohydrate?
Whole grains, vegetables, fruit and beans are four healthy carbohydrate options. They offer an array of vitamins, minerals and fiber. White bread, soda, processed and refined foods are not good options. These get easily digested and lack fiber that would signal satiation making them easy to overeat and may lead to diabetes in the long run.
How Carbohydrates are Stored
Carbohydrates are stored in the form of glycogen in liver and skeletal muscle. The muscle is about 1-2% glycogen by weight and liver is about 10% by weight. Glycogen’s branched structure allow rapid mobilization for energy. Muscles can’t mobilize fat as fast. For example, mobilized glucose can be secreted from the liver to balance blood glucose levels when you are unable to get it from food.
The glycemic index is used to rank different dietary carbohydrates on their ability to raise blood glucose levels. It has a predictable effect on blood glcose levels and may help manage diabetes. Low GI foods will raise blood sugars at a slower rate resulting in slow and steady blood sugars and satiation. Foods with a low glycemic index include whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and dairy.
When Carbohydrates are Especially Imporant:
Type 2 diabetes is characterized by high blood sugar in the context of insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone that helps clear gluocse from the blood stream. Carb counting becomes an efficient way to not only help keep track of the amount of carbohydrates you are eating but also getting them at a consistent rate throughout the day to help manage your blood sugars. Eating a healthy balanced diet, mainting a healthy weight and exercising regularly will lower your risk of ever getting diabetes.