Are Carbs Bad?

If there is one fad I hate with an undying passion it’s the “No Carb” diet. It’s not that I think it’s a bad diet, its more that it’s very misleading. Most people read the words “NO or Low Carb” and think “Hey, I just won’t eat bread and I’ll lose weight”. Well, that’s not exactly how it works. Carbohydrates are essential to a balanced diet and restricting them can have harmful effects.

Lets take a look at what exactly a carbohydrate is and why they are important to your diet.

A carbohydrate is an organic compound with the empirical formula Cm(H2O)n that consists only of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with a hydrogen:oxygen atom ratio of 2:1. In food science and in many informal contexts, the term carbohydrate often means any food that is particularly rich in the complex carbohydrate starch (such as cereals, bread, and pasta) or simple carbohydrates, such as sugar (glucose) found in candy, jams, and desserts.

Carbohydrates are a common source of energy in living organisms, however, no carbohydrate is an essential nutrient in humans. The brain and neurons generally cannot burn fat for energy, but use glucose or ketones (which can be found in Carbohydrates).

Based on the effects on risk of heart disease and obesity, the Institute of Medicine recommends that American and Canadian adults get between 45–65% of dietary energy from carbohydrates. The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization jointly recommend that national dietary guidelines set a goal of 55–75% of total energy from carbohydrates, but only 10% directly from sugars (their term for simple carbohydrates).  [1]

So, basically carbohydrates are an organic compound that once broken down by the body turns into glucose and are stored as energy for the body to use. Most proponents of low or no carb diets believe that carbohydrates are again NOT a necessary nutrient and thusly can be avoided. They also believe that too much carbohydrates in a diet will cause the body to store the excess that the body doesn’t use as fat. (more on that theory later).

First off I want to tackle the idea that carbs can be avoided due to not be an essential nutrient. I can’t argue this fact but I want to point out what many “no carb” supporters seem to forget. Carbs = Energy.

The brain and neurons generally cannot burn fat for energy, but use glucose or ketones (which can be found in Carbohydrates).

So the brain needs Carbs for energy. (interesting) This would explain why many people on low carb diets complain of low energy and have documented lower brain function.

When you eat carbs, the body digests them and converts them into glucose which enters the bloodstream to be burned as energy. Your body converts glucose into glycogen which is stored in the liver and in your muscles. When small amounts of carbs are eaten, the small amount of glucose that enters the bloodstream is immediately used for energy. [2]

So again, your body needs carbs for energy. I talked to a body builder at the gym the other day and he was explaining that in-between shows he’ll up his carb intake by 200-300%. He’s “carb loading” to help build muscle. Then right before a show he’ll cut out all carbs to “cut fat”. What he knows is that during a work out your body will seek out energy to continue a certain level of intensity. Obviously, he doesn’t want the body to search out protein (muscle)  but use the stored energy (carbs or fat).

Carbohydrates spare protein as your body’s principal source of fuel. They provide the energy necessary for intense workouts more efficiently than any other energy source. Protein needs carbohydrates to work.

In fact, starving your body of carbohydrates during and after periods of intense exercise will likely cause your body to use protein as an energy source. In severe cases of low carbohydrate for prolonged periods, this may even result in the breakdown of hard-earned muscle proteins to be used as fuel during workouts or to replenish muscle glycogen after training [3]

Are you starting to see my point? If not I’ll make it very clear. If you are on a low carb or no carb diet then you are restricting your body of the very thing it needs. You may even be causing your body to seek out your muscle mass to make up for the lack of carbs. This is why many people on extremely low carb diets look, well weak.

So how much carbohydrates should I eat every day? Well that’s a great question. I’ve shown that too little carbs is unhealthy but what happens if I eat too much?

The problems begin when you eat a meal that is too high in carbs. (bagels, juice, pasta) This is because too much glucose enters the bloodstream too rapidly. A high-carb meal stimulates a biochemical response that forces your body to burn glucose rather than stored body fat as its main source of fuel. The best advice is to eat carbs that are low in starch and sugar and high in fiber. . Balance of carbs to protein is very important. a 1.3 to 1 ratio of carbs to protein is recommended.When you eat a high-carb snack prior to bedtime you cause blood sugar and insulin levels to soar. Elevated insulin during sleep not only blocks HGH (human growth hormone) release, inhibiting proper repair and recovery of your tissues, but you will find that you wake up either groggy and in need of more sleep and or very hungry from experiencing low blood sugar.[2]

FACT: Carbohydrates are a very volatile compound if not used correctly. Too much will lead to weight gain and heart disease. Conversely, too little can cause a lack of brain function, loss of energy and a loss of muscle mass. So you want to make sure you are getting the correct amount in your diet. If you are trying to lose body fat, 20-70 grams are recommended, depending on your level of activity. If you are not trying to lose body fat, 180-230 grams are sometimes recommended.

Final thought. Where you get your carbs is just as important (if not more) than how much you eat. Avoid at all costs refined processed carbohydrates. (sugars, candies, sweets, cokes, cakes etc).  The best option would be apples, apricots, cherries, grapefruit, oranges, peaches, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, oatmeal, rye, wild rice, black beans, chick peas, kidney beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, whole grain pasta,  and yams.

Hopefully this has opened your eyes to the truth about carbs and the important role they play in your diet.

Be well,

Lyell
[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbohydrate#Nutrition

[2]  http://www.three-peaks.net/annette/Together.htm

[3] http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/planet27.htm

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