Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap, which is rather unfortunate considering they are important to most aspects of life, and are found in most foods. This article will address what carbs are, and how, where and why to cut back on them to reach or maintain a healthy weight.
The Meaning of carbs
“Carbohydrate”, often abbreviated as “carb” is a chemistry term for any molecule made up of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. There are a lot of different carbohydrates that are regularly found in the average diet, which the body uses for fuel. The most infamous – and in some unfortunate cases, the most common – is sugar.
Sugars are the easiest carbohydrates for the body to break down, meaning that it yields the most energy in the shortest amount of time, and when the body has more energy than it needs, or when energy is produced faster than it can be used, the body stores that energy. The body stores this energy as adipose tissue, or “fat”, which is why so many diets call for the reduction, or even elimination of carbs.
The problem with eliminating carbs is that carbs don’t only come from refined and processed sugar, like in sweets. Carbs also make up grains, like in breads and pastas which are important sources of fiber and even some other nutrients if the grains are whole, but more on that later.
Where do carbs come from?
A lot of “crash” diets involve completely eliminating carbs, which leads the body to use up stored energy – fat – because no new energy is coming in. These diets can lead to rapid and drastic weight loss for many people on the short term, but when the body burns fat for fuel it can lead to the blood becoming acidic, making these diets dangerous for some people on the long-term, and people who do not have serious weight problems but begin one of these diets can do serious damage to their bodies.
For a diet to be successful on the long-term it should also incorporate some kind of exercise, and increasing the amount of activity while drastically increasing the amount of energy that is taken in through diet can have additional negative effects. If the body doesn’t get enough energy through diet, it will often enter a crisis mode and start to store what energy it does take in, as well as reducing the rate at which it uses energy, which can make losing weight even more difficult.
What is often easier – and healthier – is watching where carbs come from, and what kind are being consumed. Carbs are generally split into two groups: simple carbs that provide a lot of energy very quickly, and complex carbs that provide a lot of energy very slowly. Complex carbs take longer for the body to use partially because they are made up of more complex molecules which take the body longer to digest, but also because they usually carry along other important nutrients with them. Things that are very high in simple carbohydrates often provide little else, while things that are high in complex carbs often carry vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Many common foods like breads and pastas and cereals contain wheats and other grains, which are sources of carbohydrates, but grains and wheats, like carbs themselves, come in different varieties, and telling them apart and knowing which one to look for can help change the nutrient level and carbohydrate level without changing what kinds of foods are in the diet.
How to eat carbs without eating those carbs
Wheats and other grains like corn are made up of three main parts, a tough outer shell that provides mainly fiber, a softer inner portion that provides mostly energy, and a smaller inner-most piece that contains lots of vitamins and minerals. A grain can be milled to varying degrees, which changes its texture and color. Many of the carbs in the average western diet come from “processed grains” that have the outer-most layer – the fiber – and the inner-most layer – the vitamins and minerals – removed. This leaves a softer and fluffier material that is basically nothing but carbs. When the entire grain is included it is called a “whole” grain.
This is the difference between white and wheat bread. White bread is lighter and fluffier than wheat bread because wheat bread still contains the harder outer shell and the harder inner piece of the grain. Processed grains are also often bleached to make them whiter for things like cakes that wouldn’t look as tasty if they were brown.
Because processed grains lack the vitamins and nutrients that are stripped from them, products made with refined grains are often – but not always – “fortified” with vitamins and minerals that are added artificially. This sometimes even includes fiber. Because refined grains are broken down more quickly in the body they can behave more like simple carbs than whole grains.
Because many people are becoming more interested in their health, many foods like breads, cereals, and pastas, can now be purchased made with whole grain. Breads and cereals, however, can be rather dubious in that they can be made with whole grain, but often include a large amount of added sugar, so it can be important to check the ingredients list on these items. Some dieticians have suggested not buying anything that lists sugar in the first three ingredients.
The healthy sugar
There is one source of simple carbs that no diet should be without, however. Many diets that describe the reduction or elimination of carbohydrates include elimination of fruits because fruits are high in sugars. The sugars found in fruits aren’t quite the same as the refined sugars discussed above, but they are still a source of simple carbs. Fruits, however, are also good sources of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
When cutting carbs by getting cereals without added sugar, or getting plain yogurt instead of yogurts with artificial flavors and sweeteners, consider replacing that sugar with some fruit. Adding berries or slices of bananas to these otherwise bland foods can be a healthier way to make them sweater and more flavorful without adding empty carbs.