Carbohydrates get a bad rap when it comes to popular thinking…they make you gain weight, they increase your risk of disease, they are just bad! But are carbohydrates really the enemy? Carbohydrates play a primary role of being one third of our macronutrients. Carbohydrates, protein, and fats are the macronutrients (nutrients that are used in fairly large amounts) that are needed on a daily basis. They are in foods such as bread, pasta, vegetables, fruit, milk, and even beans. Simple carbohydrates are primarily sugars found in honey, fruit, as well as table sugar while complex carbohydrates are made up of multiple glucose molecules bound together, such as whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, brown rice, and some vegetables such as sweet potatoes and butternut squash. When we ingest carbohydrates, they are converted to glucose in our body. Glucose is critical to support optimal health because of the central importance of glucose as a source of energy.
Carbohydrates are essential for optimal brain function as it is the only macronutrient that it can use for energy. Brain functions such as thinking, memory, and learning are closely linked to your glucose levels and how efficiently your brain uses this fuel source. If there isn’t enough glucose in the brain, for example, neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, are not produced and communication between neurons breaks down which can result in poor attention and lower cognitive functioning (Novak, 2020). The brain has an amazing amount of nerve cells, called neurons, which makes it the most glucose demanding organ in the body, utilizing about ½ of all of the calories that we consume in sugar/carbohydrate energy. When we are not feeding our brains enough glucose, in the form of carbohydrates, we may feel tired or lazy or even unmotivated. As we begin to see the vitality of carbohydrates for brain function, research has surfaced regarding how much we “should” consume daily. The National Academy of Sciences recommends to “…consume at least 130 grams of carbohydrates (520 calories) per day to produce enough glucose for the brain to function optimally.”
Carbohydrates have many other benefits such as helping to control your cholesterol levels, aiding in digestion due to fiber, and fueling your kidneys, heart, central nervous system. Carbohydrates are also protein sparing, meaning that we use carbohydrates to fuel us so your body doesn’t breakdown protein for energy, sparing our muscle tissue.
Carbohydrates are stored in our body in the form of glycogen, which we call upon to use as a source of energy. For example, when we exercise, we use glycogen to provide us the energy needed to perform movement. Our bodies require carbohydrates to maintain a high intensity workout. Although protein and dietary fat can provide necessary energy to perform long duration physical activity, carbohydrate is the only macronutrient that can be broken down rapidly enough to provide energy during periods of high-intensity exercise (Kanter 2017). Kanter also found that high-carbohydrate foods and beverages that tend to be rapidly absorbed are best for providing the muscles with the energy that they need during exercise to maintain performance.
It should be noted that glycogen is used throughout our entire workout, whether it is high intensity or long duration, however the amount it contributes to energy production varies. Following a workout, we need to replenish our glycogen stores by ingesting fast digestible and absorbable carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, or oatmeal. As long as we choose a carbohydrate source as well as a protein source after a workout, we have essentially checked off the two boxes. We burned a lot of glycogen and have begun replacing some of it by consuming carbohydrates, as well as protein to put our body in a state of muscle protein synthesis to help gain and repair the muscle.
On the bright side, there are NO “bad” or “good” foods/carbohydrates. What to take from reading this? Eat the food that makes you happy physically and mentally that you can sustain eating for a long time. Educate yourself about your relationship with food and you will thrive in any goal you wish to achieve!
Carbohydrates 101: The benefits of carbohydrates. Reid Health. https://www.reidhealth.org/blog/carbohydrates-101-the-benefits-of-carbohydrates.
Kanter, M. (2018, January). High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance: Expert Panel Report. Nutrition today. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5794245/.
Mergenthaler, P., Lindauer, U., Dienel, G. A., & Meisel, A. (2013, October). Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends in neurosciences. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900881/.
Novak, V. (2020). Sugar and the Brain. Harvard Medical School. https://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain/sugar-and-brain.
Nutrition Wars: Choosing Better Carbohydrates. LOOKAHEADE. https://www.lookaheadtrial.org/publicResources/logDocDownload.cfm?docFileName=1f2ef286-459e-4234-afa6-98740cfd7ef0.pdf.
Publishing, H. H. Carbohydrates - Good or Bad for You? https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/carbohydrates--good-or-bad-for-you.
Jaden Boone is a passionate fitness advocate and a NASM Certified Personal Trainer with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Kinesiology, option Fitness from Long Beach State.