The Lowdown on Carbohydrates - What You Need to Know
By Nancy M. Ouhib, MBA, RD, LD / November, December 2012

Have you heard all sorts of conflicting information about carbohydrates? Are you confused about what to believe? Here are the facts to separate the hype from the truth on a nutrient that has been getting a bad rap.

The fact is that all people depend upon carbohydrate-rich foods as their principal source of calories. Think of carbohydrates as a source of energy for the body, just as gas is a source of energy for the car. The chief function of carbohydrates is to provide energy to carry out the work of the body and heat to maintain the body temperature.

Carbohydrates perform many essential metabolic functions in the body. They spare protein from being used for energy needs. They assist in the oxidation of fats. Nervous tissue, cartilage and a number of body compounds contain carbohydrates. Lactose aids in the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria. Dietary fiber absorbs and holds water. Starches and sugar give flavor and variety to the diet. Carbohydrates are important and necessary in our diet.
The end products of carbohydrate digestion are glucose, fructose and galactose, essential simple sugars (monosaccharides). Glucose is the only form of energy used by the central nervous system, but other tissues also use fats for energy. It circulates in the bloodstream and can be used immediately or stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen (a polysaccharide) for later use.

Glucose is rapidly absorbed and utilized by the cells of all body tissues as a source of energy to power their functions. Insulin regulates the level of glucose in the blood. When the blood sugar rises, the pancreas is stimulated to produce insulin. Insulin aids in the utilization of glucose for energy by all tissues, the conversion of glucose to glycogen in the liver for storage, and the conversion of glucose to fat as a reserve store for energy.

Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals and other grains, milk and milk products, and foods containing added sugars (such as cakes, cookies and sugar sweetened beverages.) All carbohydrates provide four calories per gram. But, some carbohydrates are healthier choices than others, because they contain additional necessary nutrients.

Starch and dietary fiber are complex carbohydrates. They provide both soluble and insoluble fiber. Complex carbohydrates also take longer to break down into glucose. Sources of starch include breads, cereals, grains and some vegetables. Dietary fiber, found in fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods, aids in normal elimination by the formation in the colon of a softer, bulkier stool. Insoluble and soluble fiber is present in our foods and both have important health benefits. Eat a variety of high-fiber foods, so you get enough of both in your diet. Sources of insoluble fiber include whole grain breads and cereals, wheat germ, couscous, most vegetables, barley, bulgur, and brown rice. Sources of soluble fiber include most fruits, oatmeal, oat bran, dry beans, peas, nuts and seeds.

Simple carbohydrates include sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables milk, and milk products. Simple carbohydrates also include sugars added during food processing and refining.

What is the difference? Foods with added sugars have fewer nutrients than foods with naturally occurring sugars. Avoid consuming food sources that have a lot of added sugars during processing. Consumption of too much of these foods can lead to obesity, dental caries, and a nutritional inadequacy of vital proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Examples of these added sugars include brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, invert sugar, maltose, malt syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, and sugar. Other ways to decrease consuming these added sugars is by drinking water instead of sugar sweetened soda, choosing one hundred percent fruit juice rather than a fruit drink, have fresh fruit instead of a sweet dessert, and eat breakfast cereals with little or no added sugar.

We all need carbohydrates in our diet as an essential nutrient. Carbohydrates provide us with an energy source and stabilize our body temperature for optimum function and performance.

What kind of carbohydrates we choose to eat is important. Steer clear of refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, cakes, cookies and processed foods with added sugars. Select fiber-rich carbohydrate choices from the vegetable, fruit, and grain groups. Make half of your daily grain choices whole grains and half of your plate fresh fruits and vegetables. Remember -- do not live to eat, eat to live well.

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