Carbohydrates 101

Carbohydrates are an essential part of a well-balanced diet.

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Carbs give your body energy, but eating too much starchy food isn’t healthy. Here’s how to find the right balance for your body.

The next time you’re in a diner, look around. Chances are someone’s scooping out a bagel before adding cream cheese or ordering a burger without the bun. Why? A no- or low-carb diet—like Atkins, the Zone, or South Beach—is most likely the reason. But though cutting back on certain types of carbohydrates may help you lose weight at first, removing all of them from your diet can actually make you less healthy in the long run.

Carbs Explained

According to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, carbohydrates are an essential part of a well-balanced diet. Found in most foods, carbs provide the body’s central nervous system, kidneys, brain, and muscles with the fuel they need to function properly. Carbohydrates also supply the energy the body needs to sustain a healthy, active lifestyle.

When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into sugar molecules, which are then converted into glucose—sugar that’s absorbed by the bloodstream. As your glucose level rises, your pancreas produces a hormone called insulin. Insulin allows your cells to absorb the glucose to be used for immediate energy needs and to be stored for future use.

As sugar levels in your body begin to drop, the pancreas prompts the liver to release more glucose into the blood­stream. When working properly, this recurring process guarantees that your body has high enough blood-sugar levels to keep all of its parts working correctly.

So the more carbohydrates you eat, the more energized you’ll be, right? Well, sort of. Not all carbohydrates are created equal, and the body doesn’t break down all carbs at the same rate. For the most part, carbohydrates can be separated into two categories: simple and complex.

Simple Carbs

Simple carbohydrates, or simple sugars, are found in sweeteners like table sugar, molasses, and maple syrup (sucrose); fruits (fructose); milk and other dairy products (lactose); some grains (maltose); and in sugary foods likes cookies, doughnuts, soda, and candy. Foods that contain simple carbohydrates are digested fairly quickly, so it doesn’t take long for sugar to be absorbed into the blood­stream and for the body to receive the energy it needs.

But an immediate surge of energy isn’t always a good thing, unless you’re sprinting in a race. The faster your body uses energy, the more it craves sugar to keep it alert and active—and the sooner you’ll feel hungry. For that reason, it’s better to get your daily supply of simple carbohydrates from fresh fruits, which also add vitamins and minerals to your diet.

Complex Carbs

Most complex carbohydrates are starches found in bread, cereal, corn, potatoes, pasta, and rice. Because their structure is more complicated, complex carbs need to be broken down before they can be used for energy. Digestion happens more slowly than with simple carbs. The benefit of this is that your body will feel full and your energy will last longer, so you’ll be less likely to overeat.

The other type of complex carbohydrate is called fiber. Fiber can’t be broken down, so it passes through the body undigested. Fiber is found in many foods, from leafy green vegetables to nuts, beans, blueberries, and whole grains. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a diet that’s high in fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol and help protect the body against heart disease and some forms of cancer. Consuming fiber also keeps the digestive system working properly by regularly pushing food through the intestines and preventing constipation.

Finding a Balance

Don’t get rid of carbs completely, says Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. As with most things in life, moderation is the key to a balanced diet. Cut back on simple sugars, and choose foods that contain complex carbohydrates—in addition to proteins and plenty of other nutrients. “If you’re choosing a snack, have a whole-grain cracker with peanut butter as opposed to a chunk of cheese or a slice of bologna,” Willett says. “It doesn’t have to be really strict—nutrition has a lot to do with trade-offs.”

Differentiating between what’s simple and complex might be tricky at first, but it’s important to learn how to make choices that will keep you feeling healthy and strong. Here are tips to get you started:

  1. Eat whole grains at the beginning of the day. Nonsugary cereal is a great energy booster to get your morning started. A bowl of oatmeal or shredded wheat contains plenty of fiber and is low in calories.

  2. Choose whole wheat instead of white. The refined flour used in white bread is much less healthy than whole-grain flour. It contains less of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, or nutrients found in whole-grain breads like whole wheat, seven grain, and oat bran.

  3. Avoid packaged and processed foods. Many processed foods are high in fat, sodium, and added sugars, with very few nutrients. They may also contain artificial flavors and preservatives that are harmful to your body when consumed on a regular basis.

  4. Bring on the beans. Beans are an excellent source of protein, as well as a complex carbohydrate. And the fiber they contain helps digestion.

  5. Skip the fries. Too many starchy tubers will overload your body with carbohydrates and cause you to gain weight. If you must satisfy a potato craving, baked is much healthier than fried.

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