Good Cop, Bad Cop – Dealing with Carbohydrates

Carbs are Hot! Well,  a hot topic for nutritionists and researchers. On one side we hear the immense importance of carbohydrates in our diet and on the other side we hear all the horrendous effects it has on the brain and body. The constant back and forth would throw anyone overboard and leave them dazed and confused. So are sugars good or bad?

Like with most foods we have good carbs and bad carbs. Sometimes it could be a fine line between the two but it’s definitely worth the attempt to try and figure out what is going on.

With diets that are low- carb, high fat – keto, paleo etc there is a lot of confusion surrounding carbohydrates. Should one eat carbs or avoid them? What do they do for the body?

Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen & oxygen in these molecules is always in the ratio of 2:1. Along with proteins and fats, carbs are one of the macronutrients that the body needs to meet its metabolic and energy needs. Carbohydrates convert to glucose in the digestive tract. The glucose is burnt to produce heat and ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). ATP is a molecule that plays a role in releasing energy as and when needed by the cells in our body.

Carbs are of 2 Primary Types:

  • Simple Carbohydrates: We know them better as sweeteners. Some examples include sucrose, regular sugar, fruit sugar or fructose, lactose or milk sugar.
  • Complex Carbohydrates: These are not always sweet. They are composed of multiple glucose molecules. They get broken down into glucose in the digestive tract. They include starch, glycogen, and fiber.  

Yes! All plant fiber is Carb! In fact, all the wood we see around us is technically carbohydrate. But, we do not have the capacity to break down these fibers and they usually pass through our systems intact.

However, our gut bacteria have done capacity to extract and use some of these fibers as fuel. They convert it into small chain fatty acid. Which is why foods rich in fibers act as prebiotics which serves many functions in the body. This prebiotics later converts to probiotics. And probiotics help improve digestion, boost immunity and improves sleep.

So how do we really get energy from these glucose molecules?

Some cell biology here! Each cell has a little organelle called Mitochondria. These mitochondria are called the energy house of the cell. They help release energy from glucose with the help of enzymes and oxygen. The byproduct of that reaction is ATP – energy currency, heat, and carbon dioxide.

In this manner, cells utilize the released glucose and convert all of it into usable forms. When there is an excess of glucose, it gets converted to glycogen which is stored in the liver or muscle tissue. This is usually accessed at a later time when energy is needed and glucose is not readily available.

At times, glucose is broken down in the absence of oxygen, and that results in the formation of lactic acid in the body. This is a process that is more commonly seen in muscles and is believed to be the cause of muscle soreness.

Knowing all this, What is good? What is bad?

Carbs that are whole and unprocessed are good for us: These are usually complex carbs. Like those found in sweet potatoes, bananas, brown rice, yucca, legumes, and dates. These foods are minimally altered from their natural state before reaching the dinner table. Also, these carbs always come with a good amount of associated fiber hence digest slowly in the body.

Pure, refined sugars such as common sugar, saccharin, sucrose are devoid of fiber. These have been processed and altered from their natural state. They do not contain many of the vitamins, minerals and fatty acids which are present in their wholesome counterparts. These include packed and bottled fruit drinks, white flour, white rice, white pasta – pastries. These refined carbs release the energy in one gush and have a strong impact on the blood glucose levels. They digest differently from the complex carbs.

Intake of these simple carbs is known to lead to cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Besides that, these simple sugars cause sudden spikes in the blood glucose levels. It has been seen that intake of simple carbs in high quantities is the leading cause of type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Over a long period of time, this is known to impact performance and longevity.

How much Carb is the right amount?  

So there is no hard and fast rule to this question. The amount of carb our body needs depends on our age, sex, physical activity, body type, environment, and metabolism. Gently, 100-140 grams of carbs is sufficient for urban dwellers to work. Enough for overall energy and health. So this would account for about 15-30 percent of the entire meal, and hence that many calories coming from a complex carb. The American Dietary Guideline suggests that 45% to 65% of the total daily calories should be from a carbohydrate source. This translates to about 225 – 326 grams per day.

Athletes, yoga and gym enthusiasts, who train intensely on a regular basis have different amounts of carb requirements. They need more to help with recovery, building muscle protein, synthesis of protein and hormone balance. They need about 150-250 grams of carb a day.

Those suffering from glucose related ailments such as type 2-diabetes or Alzheimer’s need much lesser. Unlike other tissues in the body, the brain depends solely on glucose for its energy needs. Alzheimer is known to be linked to brain glucose metabolism.

Carbohydrate intolerance: There are people who are intolerant to carbohydrates. These individuals do not possess some of the enzymes that break down the carbs in the digestive tract. This prevents their gut from assimilating carbohydrates. They face symptoms such as diarrhoea, flatulence and abdominal distension. The only known treatment is eliminating the culprit from the diet.

Carb – Cycling: This is a practice by which good carbohydrates are consumed on some days and restricting oneself to unprocessed carbs on other days. This practice is known to help weight loss and build lean muscle mass. Doing this on a regular basis immensely helps post-exercise recovery and improving metabolism.  

Low Carb does not always equal to Good Health:

As we have seen besides just low carb, the quality of the carb is crucial. Choosing the wrong carb would lead to mood swings, faster ageing, hormone imbalance, reduced sleep quality, slower recovery from exercise.

So always watch out for what kind of carbs you are consuming, and then go on to check quantities. What we really need to look for is quality – quantity! Most importantly, find your balance.

Disclaimer: The above article is sponsored by Thyrve, the world’s first Gut Health Program that incorporates microbiome testing and personalized probiotics to ensure a healthier gut, happier life, and a brighter future.