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The Lowdown on Carbohydrates

By Bonnie Wilson, MS, RDN, LDN

With the New Year, many people have increased their focus on improving their health and well-being. It is common to turn to the internet to look for information about good nutrition; however, it is often difficult to navigate all of the contradictory information available. One of the most common myths surrounding nutrition is that “carbs are bad.” There is a plethora of fad diets being promoted today that minimize carbohydrate intake, but there are many reasons that carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet.

Before understanding why carbohydrates are beneficial, it is important to know what they are. Carbohydrates, in addition to fat and protein, are a type of macronutrient found in our food. The 3 different types of carbohydrates are sugar, starch, and fiber. Some carbohydrates (such as sugars) are “simple carbs” and are digested quickly by your body. Other carbohydrates (such as fiber) are “complex carbs” and are digested much slower, providing more steady energy. Foods such as candy, white bread, soda, and potato chips tend to be higher in simple carbs. Foods such as whole wheat bread, legumes, nuts, fruit, and oatmeal tend to be higher in complex carbs.

The following are reasons to include carbohydrates on your plate:

  1. All of the cells in our bodies use carbohydrates for energy. Simple carbs typically lead to quicker spikes in energy levels, whereas the more slowly digested complex carbs provide energy to our body’s cells over longer periods of time.
  2. Exercise fuel. During exercise, carbohydrates fuel our muscles. After eating, carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose, which can be used immediately as energy or stored as glycogen in our muscles. This allows for our muscles to use the stored glycogen for energy rather than breaking down muscle protein. Carbohydrates also help us maintain stable blood sugar levels during exercise.
  3. Brain Function. Carbohydrates are the brain’s preferred energy source.
  4. Gut Health. Eating a diet high in fiber is essential for a healthy digestive system. The healthy bacteria living in our guts feed off of certain fibers called prebiotics. Fiber also helps our bodies get rid of waste more easily and can reduce GI symptoms such as constipation and bloating.
  5. Reduced risk of chronic disease. Fiber can help to lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health.
  6. Weight Control. Because complex carbs are digested slowly, they can help keep us full for longer periods of time.

 

A standard recommendation by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is that 45-60% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. For optimal health, the majority of these carbohydrates should be complex carbs. Here are some simple meal and snack ideas that include complex carbs:

  • Breakfast:
    • Bowl of oatmeal with a handful of nuts and some frozen blueberries
    • 2 frozen whole wheat waffles with 1 tbsp of peanut butter on each
    • 1 scrambled egg with 1 oz cheese on a whole wheat English muffin
  • Lunch/Dinner:
    • A whole wheat tortilla filled with low-sodium deli meat, spinach, and hummus
    • A salad topped with canned tuna, a handful of nuts and/or dried fruit, and 2 tbsp low-fat dressing
    • Pasta salad made with whole wheat pasta, diced peppers/onions, and light vinaigrette.
  • Snacks:
    • Carrots and hummus
    • Whole grain chips with salsa
    • An apple or banana with 1-2 tbsp peanut butter

Science continues to support carbohydrates as part of a balanced diet. Make an appointment with an Avance Care registered dietitian to learn more about what you can do to improve your health, one small change at a time. Call (919) 237-1337, option 4 to schedule your appointment today. Happy eating!

 

Bonnie is a registered dietitian at the Avance Care Durham location. In her free time, she enjoys exploring her home of Raleigh, NC and playing with her new puppy, Nola, or kitty, Wolfgang. She enjoys most sports and can often be found cheering on her NC State Wolfpack, Carolina Panthers, and Carolina Hurricanes.

Categories: Education,  Mental Health
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