If carbs confuse you, you are not alone.
Carbohydrates confuse people I work with all the time. People aren’t quite sure if they are good, bad, or what makes a carb a carb.
When anything is confusing I like to go back to science or physiology and break it down in a simple way so people can make the best choice for their body. Because we are all different.
Carbohydrates include fruit, veggies, grains, breads, cookies, muffins, milks, sugars, and more.
Carbohydrates are made of sugars, starch, and fiber. There are other important things in carbs that include minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients (plant nutrients like antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, phytoestrogens, etc). The ratios of each depend on the food itself and dictate if it is healthy or not so healthy.
- There are 3 different kinds of starches that include rapidly digestible starches, slowly digestible starches, and resistant starch. These all impact how fast the carb breaks down in your body
- There are several kinds of fibers but the ones we talk about most are soluble and insoluble. All fiber slows down glucose from being absorbed but some are digested by us and others are used by our microbes.
Every carb you eat ends up being broken down into glucose. Glucose is the simplest form of sugar. Carbs begin chemical digestion in the mouth but primarily break down and are primarily absorbed in the intestines. There, glucose travels into the bloodstream where it is then called blood sugar. It can now travel to where it is needed to be used for energy or stored for fat for later. Insulin is needed to help glucose get into cells.
Some carbs breakdown and move quickly into your blood stream, causing a blood sugar spike. And some move more slowly.
Simple carbs have fewer sugars bound together and move into your blood fast, spiking blood sugar. This is not optimal for balancing energy through out the day.
Complex carbs have many branches of sugars bound together, they are more complex, they are slower to break down and contain fiber. Fiber helps slow down the speed that glucose is absorbed into your blood. This helps balance energy throughout the day.
A few other benefits of fiber include feeding the healthy microbes in the gut that we rely on for hormone balance, immune health, brain health and more. Fiber also helps to keep our bowels moving which helps carry toxins and metabolites like estrogens out if the body.
Sometimes adding more fiber is hard for people with digestive imbalances. This could be due to a shortage of digestive enzymes and problems breaking them down or from bacteria being in the wrong places in the gut. Adding fiber slowly is important for these people while efforts are made to rebalance the gut. Sometimes when the body responds to certain foods negatively it is more telling about the condition of the body, not the food. This is where the concept heal before ideal comes into play.
One time that simple carbs or carbs with rapidly digestible starches are beneficial is if you are exercising at an anaerobic level (high heart rate) for a long enough time to need fuel. At this level your body only burns sugar for fuel, as opposed to fat which it can burn at an aerobic level for days if you are adapted.
Clearly, not all carbs are the same. Carbs have components that are important for all humans though. Focusing on a wide variety of brightly colored and unrefined carbs is best for sustainable energy and overall health.
Even if someone is eating keto or paleo, eating a large portion of complex and low sugar/starch carbs is essential for the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber.
A few of my favorite carbs are leafy greens, onions, garlic, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, apples, blueberries, black berries, millet, beets, maple syrup, dry mango, broccoli, tomatoes and my favorite tartary buckwheat honey cake.
What are your favorite carbs? How do they work for your body?
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Janel Ferrin Anderson FNLP NC
Hello. I am Janel, owner of Mountain Rebalance. I am a board certified holistic nutritionist, a certified functional medicine nutritionist, I have my doctorate in natural medicine, am a family herbalist and I started out as an Ayurvedic yoga therapist. I obsess over why. Why symptoms and disease manifest and how food and lifestyle impact how we function. I help people understand their own body and explore the root cause of their symptoms or disease. Learn more about me here
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