This post was written by Christina Scalese, a registered, licensed dietitian here at the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders.
Picture this: While waiting in line at the checkout counter at the grocery store, you glance at the magazine rack and scan the headlines. As you browse, you are hard-pressed to find one that isn’t telling you how to lose weight with a no- or low-carb diet, or maybe it’s telling you which carbs you should or shouldn’t eat.
With all of the conflicting information out there, it’s very difficult to distinguish between what is true and what isn’t — adding to the confusion about what is right for your body. In the mix of all the different fad diets, carbohydrates are notoriously picked on. All of this misinformation has led some people to eliminate or drastically decrease intake of one of the body’s most essential nutrients.
It’s easy for consumers to buy into clever marketing of what they should and shouldn’t eat. This is why it’s important to understand what carbohydrates do for the body, and why we need them to function properly.
So, what are carbohydrates? To get scientific, there are three types: monosaccharide, disaccharide and polysaccharide. They all differ in their molecular makeup. Most commonly, we break down carbohydrates into simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates, monosaccharides and disaccharides, are the most rapidly absorbed in the body and the quickest source of energy. The sugar in fruit and milk fall under this category.
Complex carbohydrates, polysaccharides, include starch and fiber. They have a slow release, keeping blood-sugar levels more stable. Common foods that fall under this category are potatoes, peas, corn, beans and different grains.
This brings me to another source of common confusion — grains. Grains, such as oats, wheat, barley, rice and products derived from these grains, are categorized either as refined or whole grains. A grain has three parts to it: bran, the outer part of the shell that provides the fiber, germ, the nutrient-packed second layer, and endosperm, the innermost part that contains the starch.
When you purchase a “whole grain” product, this simply means the food product contains, simply as it states, the entire grain kernel and all of its great nutrients. A product that is a refined grain only consists of the endosperm. Since refined grains only contain the starchy part of the grain, oftentimes they get a bad rap. However, it is recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that half of your grains should be whole, contrary to what many believe to be 100 percent. So, there is most definitely room for refined grains, such as white flour, breads, pastas, bakery, etc.
Now that you understand the different types of carbohydrates, it’s important to know exactly what they do for you. Being one of the main macronutrients required by the body, carbohydrates are vital to proper functioning. Carbohydrates are the body’s No. 1 source of energy! In fact, the majority of your caloric intake should be coming from carbohydrate sources.
In the body, foods that contain this nutrient are broken down into glucose, one of the monosaccharides. Glucose is very important to your body because it is the primary source of energy for cells, especially in the brain. Since the brain has no storage capacity for glucose, it needs a constant supply.
So, where does the low-carb diet come from? The body stores glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Glycogen holds onto water. If the body is deprived of carbohydrates, the glycogen stores deplete, as does the water it is holding onto. This is where the initial weight loss comes into play. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of what is happening in the body that is promoting the weight loss.
So, the next time you are in line at the store, don’t be misled by clever marketing. Balanced eating is the key to a healthy lifestyle. Carbohydrates come in many different, satisfying and delicious forms. Be sure to include this great nutrient into all of your meals, and enjoy them — guilt-free!