Alright, on to the last macronutrient – carbohydrates! Let’s break it down…
Carbs are the primary source of energy for the body, for all of our cells and our brain.
All carbohydrates can be broken down to molecules of glucose, fructose, or galactose. Designation of ‘simple carbohydrate’ and ‘complex carbohydrate’ is based on how many of these sugar molecules are strung together to form the carbohydrate. No matter the source, our body will break the carbohydrate back down into those simple molecules of glucose, fructose, or galactose during digestion. It’s easier to break apart the 2 sugar molecules in sucrose (table sugar) than the extended chain of molecules that form cellulose or starch. That’s why you get a sugar high from candy and not from a sweet, fiber-rich fruit.
After you eat, the carbs first go to top off energy stores in the liver. Any that are leftover are released to the blood stream, triggering the release of insulin which acts like a key to unlock other cells around the body that will let the carb in to be used for energy. Once the body cells are replete, the remaining carb will be taken back to the liver to be repackaged as triglycerides and sent to our fat cells and stored in case we ever go through periods of low food intake in the future.
The easy availability of the sugar molecules from simple sugars is why diets that are based mostly in refined carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, white pasta (where a lot of the fiber has been removed), soda, and sugary breakfast cereals or muffins tend to lead to weight gain, high triglycerides, high level of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and insulin resistance.
However the sugar in those complex carbohydrates that include fiber is bound up in such a way that we can’t fully digest them. When we eat foods rich in fiber and resistant starches, the sugars stay bound up in long chains and instead of being taken into the body we end up just flushing them down the toilet. Including protein or fat in a meal also slow down carb absorption, so we don’t get such a big sugar rush and then crash (and crave more sugar). Protein, fat, and fiber increase satiety because they aren’t as easy to digest and absorb. Our bodies have to work harder to break them down. Our bodies don’t want more food while they’re still breaking down our last meal, so meals with fiber, protein, and fat both help to regulate our blood sugar levels and also allow us to go longer before we get hungry and want to eat again – both are helpful for weight management!
A List of Simple Carbs and of Complex Carbs
For the most part you can think of simple carbs as foods that someone else has prepared (i.e. white carbs or anything that comes packaged) while complex carbs require you to do a lot of the preparation (such as old-fashioned oatmeal, dicing vegetables, peeling fruit). There are a lot of exceptions, but it’s a good starting point.
- White bread
- White rice
- White pasta
- Sugary cereals
- Ice cream
- Sugary yogurt
- Sweetened coffee drinks
- Brown sugar
- Raw sugar
- Maple Syrup
- Corn syrup
- High fructose corn syrup
- Whole grains (oatmeal, wheat berries, quinoa)
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole Wheat bread
- Legumes (beans and lentils)
- Plain yogurt
Carbs and Exercise
More active people need more carbs. Those of us (me included) who spend most of our days sitting at a computer don’t need to eat as many carbs. We aren’t burning as much energy so we aren’t burning through the sugars that we already have stored in our body at the same pace. They don’t need to be replaced.
But Sundays, when I work at the bakery, I’m on my feet the whole time and I’m constantly kneading bread or moving around heavy bread racks. All of that takes a lot more energy than days that I’m sitting in the nutrition office at the hospital, mostly in front of a computer. So I need more carbs on the days that I work at the bakery (conveniently surrounded by bread) than days that I don’t.
If you exercise you need carbohydrates too. I can do a more in-depth nutrition for athletes post at a later time if you all are interested but I’m only going to speak in generalities here.
- If you workout first thing in the morning and you’re doing a workout that’s less than an hour you don’t need to eat first, unless you wake up hungry.
- If you’re working out later in the day, and you’re doing a workout that’s less than an hour you probably don’t need a pre-workout snack. Unless you’re hungry, your last meal will serve as your workout fuel.
- If your workout is going to be more than an hour first thing in the morning, you’ll want some fairly simple carbs beforehand. And you’ll want something easy to digest throughout your workout, such as a sports drink or energy gels.
No matter the situation, you’ll want to eat something with both carbs and protein after you finish working out. I told you about how protein helps to maintain your muscle mass last week and carbs also play a role in that. After a workout, your liver, muscles, and other cells are going to want to replace that energy they just burned through. If you don’t eat they’ll start breaking down your fat (yay!) and your muscles (boo) to refill those energy stores.
Insulin might have come across in a negative light when I mentioned it above but it’s actually an anabolic hormone, meaning it helps your body build new tissue. Eating carbohydrates after a workout and stimulating the release of insulin actually helps to encourage your muscles to take up that carb and grow bigger and stronger. And isn’t that half the point of working out?
So now that I’ve told you about fat, protein, and carbohydrates, how do I put it all together? My meal plan for this week looks like this:
Breakfast – Bean quesadillas
- Corn tortillas (whole grain, complex carb)
- Refried beans (legume, complex carb + protein)
- Cheese (dairy, complex carb + protein)
- Guacamole (healthy fat)
- Berries on the side (fruit, complex carb)
Lunch – Salad bar
- Mixed greens (vegetable, complex carb)
- Carrots (vegetable, complex carb)
- Onion (vegetable, complex carb)
- Black beans or chickpeas (legume, complex carb + protein)
- Hardboiled egg (protein)
- Chicken, if available (protein)
- Oil and vinegar (healthy fat)
- Pretzels or Fritos (refined grain, simple carb)
Snack (if needed)
- Roasted, unsalted cashews (healthy fat)
- Apple (fruit, complex carb)
Dinner – Tray dinner
- Chicken sausage (protein)
- Chickpeas (legume, complex carb + protein)
- Brussels sprouts (vegetable, complex carb)
- Sweet potato (vegetable, complex carb)
- Onion (vegetable, complex carb)
Dessert – Dark chocolate (simple carb)
So there you have it. That’ll wrap up this little series about macronutrients. Do you guys have any lingering questions? Leave them below!
Disclaimer: Hey, we’re all unique. The information on this blog isn’t a substitute for individualized advice from a healthcare professional. Check with your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle.