What You Need to Know About Carbs

This is a post sponsored by ATKINS, all opinions are my own.
Unprocessed Carbohydrates - My Body My Kitchen Atkins

There is a lot of confusion about carbohydrates; sadly, this macronutrient is misunderstood.  I think by understanding what carbohydrates are and how our bodies process them you will be empowered to make more informed decisions that align with sustaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

DON’T CARBS CAUSE WEIGHT GAIN?

One of the most common misconceptions about carbohydrates is that they are all bad and will make you gain weight. The reality is that the overconsumption of any food can cause weight gain, however, it’s more difficult to over consume some foods than others. For example, think about how much easier it is to drink one cup (8 Oz) of orange juice than it is to eat 3 whole oranges; these both provide you with similar amounts of energy, but you’ll be more satiated with the oranges.

Weight loss/gain is governed by a simple concept: an energy surplus results in weight gain while an energy deficit results in weight loss. The implementation of this energy balance can come in many forms and the combination of macronutrients you consume will impact your overall experience. It’s easier to avoid over-consuming if you don’t constantly feel hungry.

ALL CARBS ARE NOT THE SAME

As I mentioned in a previous post on the “Hidden Sugar Effect” – when carbohydrates convert to sugar when digested. You don’t see the sugar, but your body does- not all carbs are created equally.  Carbohydrates can be divided into four categories: sugars, starches, fiber and oligosaccharides.

Sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides): These carbohydrates are also called “fast-acting” or “simple” carbohydrates. Sugars are naturally found in fruit and dairy; they are also added to many foods during processing.  Some of the common names for added sugar are molasses, honey, cane sugar, raw sugar, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup and agave nectar.  Keep in mind that although fruits contain sugars, that does not make them the same as added sugars.  Fruits also contain other nutrients and fiber that slow the breakdown of sugar.

Our bodies tend to digest foods containing sugars more quickly than proteins and fats.  In addition, sugars do not offset hunger for long.  Which is one of the reasons why consuming too many sugars (especially added sugar) can make weight management difficult and why I tend to include nuts and seeds with my low glycemic fruit and berry bowls.

Examples of complex carbs (starches)

Starches (polysaccharides): These carbohydrates are also called “complex carbs” and consist of long chains of glucose.  Our bodies break down starches into glucose for energy.  Sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables. 

Fiber: This carbohydrate cannot be broken down into digestible sugar molecules. Fiber comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble fiber.  Soluble fiber dissolves in water while insoluble fiber does not.  Fiber is found in the cellulose of plant-based foods like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Since fiber is not digestible, it is sometimes subtracted from the total carbohydrate content of a food to calculate net carbs. Fiber is very helpful with weight management as it keeps you satiated and reduces the total number of calories you consume. Experts say our daily intake of fiber from food (not supplements) should be 25 grams to 30 grams.

Examples of Oligosaccharides – Onions, garlic, leeks

Oligosaccharides: This category of carbohydrates falls between starches and sugars. Most oligosaccharides are indigestible, can be soluble fiber and/or fermentable fibers and are found in onions, garlic, legumes, wheat, asparagus and other plant foods.

CARBS & THE HIDDEN SUGAR EFFECT

The “hidden sugar effect” is when carbohydrates convert to sugar when digested. You don’t see the sugar, but your body does It is the impact foods have on our system that is equivalent to that of sugar.  This effect is more closely linked to the glycemic load (and not just the glycemic index) of foods. Glycemic load (GL) describes the quality and quantity of carbohydrates in a food.  High quality carbohydrates are unprocessed and include fiber and other nutrients.  Whereas low-quality carbohydrates are highly processed with significant amounts of their nutritional value stripped away.

By replacing the processed carbohydrates in your diet with fiber-rich green vegetables and other unprocessed vegetables like whole grains, beans and potatoes, you can reduce the impact of the “hidden sugar effect” and increase your ability to sustain a healthy lifestyle (not just a diet).

*Here are some of my go-to carbohydrates. As with any food, keep an eye on your portion sizes which will depend on your level of activity and overall fitness goals:

  • Vegetables: Spinach, broccoli, zucchini, cabbage and avocado
  • Fruit: Blueberries, watermelon, pears, strawberries and apples
  • Whole grains: brown rice and oats
  • Starches & legumes: Sweet potato, black beans and chickpeas
*Acceptable on Atkins 40.

For a more complete list of unprocessed carbohydrates, checkout Atkins 40.

WHAT DO YOU DO NOW?

As you continue your fitness journey, keep an eye out for opportunities where you can swap processed simple carbs for foods with unprocessed complex carbs and fiber: whole grain toast instead of a white bagel; berries and nuts instead of candy.  Reading the nutrition facts labels and ingredients list will help you make these decisions.

Now I’m not saying that you can never again have a bite of your favorite cake or chump down on a bagel and cream cheese sandwich; food should be enjoyed with zero guilt. Just use this knowledge to make sustainable and informed changes that align with your vision of a healthy lifestyle.

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