What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the body’s main power source, providing energy for your cells and muscles for all activities of life. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, galactose or fructose and transported in your body through the bloodstream. Insulin helps the glucose enter the cells where it is used for energy, and if extra is available, some gets stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen. If the sugar in your blood gets too low, another hormone, glucagon, triggers glycogen to turn back to glucose and thereby maintains a steady blood sugar level between 60-110mg/dL. One gram of carbohydrate provides 4 calories.
Although carbohydrates often are criticized, they are necessary and by choosing complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans you get more nutrients for your body. Often these choices are also high in fiber, and may increase the feeling of satiety for your stomach! Limit refined/simple carbohydrates like soda, white bread or candy because these are rapidly broken down by your body. Here are some common untruths about carbs.
1. Carbs make you hyper.
Often people associate children full of energy, as having consumed too much sugary food. Carbs have gotten a bad reputation for being associated with ADHD, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. What causes ADHD is not fully known, but more often than not, it could be the environmental factors or even genetics. Consider if it is the cupcake that made your kid all wired up, or more than likely the birthday party full of jumpy toys and a hundred other screaming children that lead to unruly behavior.
2. Carbs make you fat.
Once again, the bad reputation goes to carbohydrates for making you fat, but the truth is that consuming more foods than you need in a day, whether it is protein, fats or carbs, will determine if you put on weight. If anything, fats are turned into fat tissue before extra calories from carbohydrates are stored as adipose tissue. Being overweight is affected by inactivity, genetics, environmental issues and your whole diet, not just sugars or carbs! When you eat, carbs are broken down into blood glucose and insulin regulates how much glucose is sent to the liver or muscles or stored for future use. It only turns to adipose tissue when there is excess amounts. Insulin resistance is also not caused by carbs, but once again from consuming too much food, leading to obesity or being overweight. Exercise and weight loss will improve insulin’s ability to control your blood sugar level better than going on a low-carb diet alone. Balance your daily intake with the amount of calories you burn every day!
3. Carbs are the cause of type 2 diabetes.
As mentioned in the section above, insulin controls your ability to use sugar normally, and when you have type 2 diabetes the natural ability of your body to keep blood glucose levels within the normal range becomes a challenge. However people still continue to vilify carbs as the cause, despite the evidence that it is a range of things like genetics, aging, being overweight, illness and limited activity levels. Diet is an important part of managing diabetes but eliminating carbs from your diet is not the answer! To control blood sugar levels, you need to manage your overall intake, as well as adding exercise and even medication if your doctor indicates the need. Carbohydrates are important for many body processes and more often it is not the type of carb that affects the blood glucose levels after a meal but more so how was it prepared, if it was eaten with fats, how much was consumed, the amount of fiber and other foods eaten in the meal. Choose carbohydrates from vegetables, fruits, whole-grain foods, the nutrients and increased feelings of satiety.
4. Carbs make your mood swing.
Limit the intake of refined carbohydrates and replace them with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, because although there is limited evidence of carbohydrates directly affecting mood, the rapid breakdown of simple carbohydrates may be associated with rapid changes in blood sugar levels. Serotonin is a chemical in our bodies that works to break down and relieve stress. The body replenishes serotonin with the glucose found in carbohydrates, but there is not a direct link of eating a meal with some carbohydrates and mood changes. More likely than not, these tasty foods are just triggers of happy memories, like people thinking that they feel better after a warm cup of milk, or comforted by a giant bowl of popcorn. Mood changes are more directly linked to inadequate sleep, skipped meals, and dehydration.
5. Carbs cause hypoglycemia.
Hypoglycemia is a condition in which in which your blood sugar drops to below 40mg/dL. Regular blood sugar levels are fairly consistent due to the constant body processes that maintain the level between 60-110mg/dL. When blood sugars reach low levels, it’s due to there being a lack of glucose readily available to fuel the cells. The cells are then unable to produce energy and your body might respond by signaling hunger, trembling, rapid heart rate and becoming sweaty or clammy. However, hypoglycemic events are not very common, often being self-diagnosed as the reason behind fatigue, anxiety or headaches. For people with diabetes, hypoglycemia can occur from too much exercise, taking too much insulin or not eating enough. But most “hypoglycemic” feelings are due to other causes. Try making sure you are fully hydrated before rushing to the candy. Keeping up with your exercise plan, sleeping well and eating regularly spaced meals and snacks full of complex carbs, proteins and fats can also help.
Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master’s Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.