Carbohydrates…Good or Bad???
Important facts to help you decide for yourself.
Thinking about “carbs” probably conjures up images of anything and everything you shouldn’t be eating if you’re watching your weight: pasta, cookies, cake, bread. Nutritional advice in the past has trained us to almost fear them—and feel guilty for breaking down and indulging in their dense, bready goodness.
But we now understand that much of the past thinking about this was wrong. Yes, some types of carbohydrates are not good for you: they’re called sugar. Sugar is a basic, broken down carbohydrate, devoid of any nutrients. When you consume too much, bad things happen. But complex carbohydrates, like those found in whole grain breads, grains like quinoa and farro, and yes, fruits, veggies, and dairy, are all part of a nutritious diet. In fact, your body needs carbohydrates to complete its basic functions.
Here’s what’s really happening inside your body when you eat carbs, and why they’re not exactly the villain you may think they are.
First things first: not all carbs are created equal.
Carbs get a bad rap because we all think of the bad ones—simple carbs like white pasta, bread, donuts, bagels, sugary cereal—which are not good for our bodies. But carbs come in two forms: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are made up of short chains of carbon molecules that require little breakdown and go directly into the bloodstream and cause a blood sugar spike. Any simple carbohydrate, or just straight up sugar, really has NO redeeming qualities, nutritionally speaking. Sugar also enhances inflammation, which is connected to a slew of problems, like heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and even our response to Covid 19 infection. It’s also bad for your skin, contributing to signs of aging, like wrinkles.
Complex carbohydrates have longer chains of carbon molecules, so it takes longer for your body to break them down. Which means the sugar isn’t “dumped” into our bloodstream. We experience a more steady-state infusion of sugar into our bloodstream that supplies longer lasting energy. When you eat carbohydrates, your body works to break them down to their simplest form: glucose.
“The breakdown of carbohydrates starts in our mouth with salivary enzymes, then goes to the mechanical churning of the stomach using digestive enzymes, along with B vitamins (the helpers) and the journey ends when they are in their simplest form, glucose, which is then absorbed in the small intestine,” explains Kim Larson, R.D., spokesperson for The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics. Glucose then travels to the liver to be distributed throughout the body. Your cells first use whatever glucose they need for energy, sending it to the muscles and tissues in your body. Some gets stored in the liver as a reserve tank, and any excess is stored as fat, both in the liver and in adipose tissue around your body. We know loading up on sugar is bad for our bodies, and can lead to chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes. Too much of any carbohydrate can do that, too, since it all ends up as glucose.
We need carbohydrates for our bodies to even function.
Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy. Nutrition is a key element in the formation of our native immune system, which in turn is our initial defense against Covid 19. Glucose is the form of sugar that our brain uses. We need a certain amount of it to fuel all of our metabolic processes so we can have energy to do things from breathe, digest, run, do work, think. Literally, everything. Fat and protein have their jobs too, but when it comes to getting that basic energy, carbs are key.
The brain could be considered a “carbo hog,” meaning that it needs a lot of the right carbohydrates to function. Unlike muscles, the brain does not store glucose, so it needs a steady supply. Unlike other organs that can use fats and even protein for energy in an emergency, the brain can only use glucose as its primary fuel. The brain favors complex carbs that are partnered with protein, fiber and/or fat that allows glucose to be slowly released. Simple, refined sugar tends to release glucose rapidly, such that the glucose is used up too fast, leaving the brain hungry and foggy.
So, what about the whole weight-gain thing? The term, “Covid 15” refers to the added weight gain many have experienced with the relative “quarantine” caused by the pandemic. Obesity is perhaps the most important alterable risk factor for poor outcomes with Covid 19. Certainly eating too much of anything (including protein and fat) will cause weight gain. Just eating more calories than you burn in a day can lead to weight gain. The problem is that simple carbs and sugars won’t keep you full, so they’re really easy to overeat. If you eat healthy carbs, as part of a balanced diet that also includes protein and fat, your body will function the way it should. This is critical for a healthy immune system and health in general.
Nutritious, complex carbs are found in more foods than you think. And you should be eating them every day.
When someone says, “I’m cutting out carbs,” they usually mean they’re cutting out breads and pasta. Many of us forget that milk, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are all carbohydrates, and also come with essential nutrients like fiber and protein. So when you’re eating cauliflower, peas, bananas, apples, broccoli—the list goes on—you’re indeed eating carbohydrates. And your body is happy about it.
Ditching all carbs isn’t a good move. Instead, eat the good kinds, in moderation. “Over half of our daily calories should come from quality carbohydrates, like whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables,” Larson notes. “We cannot support the brain if we are taking in less than 120 grams of carbohydrate per day, and a lack of glucose (like oxygen) to the brain can cause irreversible damage.” So certainly cut out those bad carbs, but you can (and should) eat the healthy ones every single day.
Remember, proper nutrition is a vital component of good health. While there is now so much emphasis on wearing a mask, washing your hands and social distancing, don’t neglect the importance of nutrition to achieve and maintain good health.
Paul R. Block, MD. FACP, FCCP