Our bodies run on the fuels we know as carbohydrates. Whether we eat whole-grain bread or candy, our bodies turn the carbohydrates in those foods into blood sugar, or glucose. That doesn’t mean, however, that both foods are equally good sources of energy. Nutritionists say that the bread is the better value, supplying fuel to our bodies over a longer period of time. The candy, they say, short-changes our bodies, providing energy only for a short time.
Nutritionists categorize carbohydrates in two ways – simple and complex:
1. Simple carbohydrates. These are uncomplicated sugars found in table sugar, honey, fruits, and even milk.
2. Complex carbohydrates. These are long molecular chains of glucose that are broken down slowly by the body. They are found in starchy vegetables (corn and potatoes), legumes (beans and peas), and foods made from grain (bread, cereal, rice, and pasta).
Health authorities recommend that we get 55 percent of our calories from carbohydrates, with emphasis on cereals, breads, vegetables, fruits and other complex carbohydrates. Sugars, on the other hand, should be eaten in moderation.
Unrefined vs. refined:
Unrefined complex carbohydrates are more nutritious than processed ones. Whole complex carbohydrates (whole grains, brown rice, and beans) are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other healthful compounds. Refined carbohydrates (white flour, white rice, and most bakery goods) have been processed until few nutrients remain. Worse, refining leaches out precious fiber that lowers cholesterol, prevents constipation, and protects against colon cancer. Eating refined carbohydrates may also increase the risk of diabetes.
According to nutritionists, although complex carbohydrates tend to be low in fat (like protein, they contain 4 calories per gram compared with fat’s 9 calories per gram), you "can" eat too much of them. Excessive amounts of beans, starchy vegetables, pasta, and other grains cause weight gain. The best approach, as nutritionists suggest, is to mix such foods with plentiful amounts of vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, peppers, leafy greens, and spinach. They contain complex carbohydrates but relatively few calories.
Whole grains, vegetables, and beans are not only nutritious, they may also help you relax. Studies have shown that meals rich in carbohydrates boost seretonin levels in the brain, which may produce a calming effect; a little meat protein can block that effect. So to stay alert during the day, nutritionists recommend eating some protein at breakfast and lunch. Then to relax in the evening, dine on pasta or rice with vegetables.
Loading not recommended:
The marathoner’s tradition of limiting carbohydrates the week before the race and then loading up on them during the last two days has been discounted because it doesn’t improve performance and may cause lethargy, weight gain, and cardiac problems. Most marathon runners now eat a normal high-carbohydrate diet during training, and, two days before an event, they add more carbohydrates. Even so, any advantage from the added carbohydrates is slight.
One caution from nutritionists and health experts: "Don’t lose weight without carbohydrates. Some new diets cut calories by limiting carbohydrates and adding protein, but such regimens can cause nausea and headaches. Worse, restricting complex carbohydrates can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer."