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Understanding Carbohydrates as Fuel
I'm often asked during my nutrition counseling sessions
"what can I take to have more energy?" It's as if there is a magic pill, potion
or powder that will instantly give us boundless energy, strength and vitality. Sorry, but
that just isn't the case. I wish it were, and I wish I had the pill, but it just doesn't
work that way. What most people fail to realize is that the calorie is just a measure of
energy expenditure. When your caloric/nutrient density falls below what is required to
maintain your bodies fuel stores, then you can definitely experience a decline in energy
levels. I don't care how hard you press on the accelerator, if the gas tank is empty,
you're not going to get very far at all.
All carbohydrates are composed of atoms of carbon, hydrogen and
oxygen. Carbohydrates derive their name from the fact that their hydrogen and oxygen atoms
are always in the same proportion as in water. Thus the name, carbo (carbon) hydrate
(water). The main function of carbohydrates is to provide energy for the body. Stored
carbohydrates in the body provide a rapidly available form of energy, with each gram of
carbohydrate yielding approximately 4 kcal of energy.
Carbohydrates exist in basically three forms. Monosaccharides,
disaccharides and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides are simple sugars such as glucose and
fructose. Glucose is probably the most familiar and it's often referred to as "blood
sugar". Fructose is the sugar found in fruits and honey and is considered to be the
sweetest of the simple carbohydrates.
Disaccharides are formed by combining two monosaccharides. For
example, table sugar or sucrose is composed of glucose and fructose. Lactose or milk sugar
is composed of glucose and galactose. Sucrose is considered to be the most common dietary
disaccharide in the United States. The estimate is that about 25% of the total calories of
an average American comes from sucrose. That's pretty alarming!
Polysaccharides are complex carbohydrates that contain three or more
monosaccharides. Polysaccharide chains may be rather short (3 monosaccharides) or very
long (hundreds of monosaccharides). For fuel sources, polysaccharides are the preference.
The two most common forms of polysaccharides are cellulose and starch. Humans lack the
digestive enzymes necessary to digest cellulose and thus cellulose forms fiber and is
discarded as waste in the fecal material. Starch however, found in corn, grains, beans,
potatoes and peas is easily digested by humans and should make up the bulk of your
carbohydrate consumption. Now, let's break this down a little further.
Your goals will dictate what you should do with your carbohydrate
intake and from this point forward, you're going to look at them in just a little
different light. We're going to talk still in terms of three types of carbohydrates, but
we're going to discuss them as simple sugars (mono and disaccharides), starchy carbs
(polysaccharides) and fibrous carbs (also polysaccharides).
If your goals are even remotely related to gaining quality muscle and
losing body fat, then our discussion on simple carbs will be brief and we can sum it up in
two simple words. AVOID THEM! Simple carbohydrates have no place in a meal plan designed
to maximize muscle and minimize body fat. There are a couple of problems here that John
Parrillo has made more than evident in past articles so I'll be brief. In general, simple
carbohydrates will have a quick entry time into the bloodstream. This will result in a
quick rise in blood sugar. The first organ to respond to this rapid rise in blood sugar is
the pancreas. The beta cells of the pancreas secrete insulin in order to bring the blood
sugar levels back to normal. That's a good thing. The bad news is that this high insulin
secretion signals your body to store fat. Most of the "fat-free goodies" that we
find on the grocers shelves are LOADED with sugar. Start reading the labels. You might be
surprised at what you find! The fat-free title can sometimes be just a bit misleading.
Especially if the product is loaded with fat producing sugars!
Fructose is just a bit different from the other simple carbs in that
it doesn't affect blood sugar and insulin. Good ole fructose doesn't bother with that at
all. Rather, it is actually converted to a fat before it ever hits your bloodstream and
once processed in your body is NEVER in the form of a sugar that you could "burn
off" as so many people would have you believe. Fructose also cannot be used to
restore muscle glycogen levels and as a result is of no benefit at all to the athlete.
Sugar loaded sports drinks, even those containing fructose, aren't going to do for you
what they should. Again, read the labels. You just might be surprised!
If you don't gather anything else from this article, please to grasp
this one important point. Simple sugars, no matter their form or source will not benefit
you in your quest for a lean, muscular body. Be a more conscious label reader and start
checking not only for fats (which I trust you've done for years now!), but for sugars as
well. You'll be surprised at how many places you'll find simple sugars needlessly added to
products. Now, on to the more important starchy and fibrous carbs.
Starchy and fibrous carbs are both "complex" carbs
(polysaccharides) in that they digest more slowly and allow for a slower release of
glucose into the bloodstream. This results in steady blood sugar levels, and prevents the
spikes in insulin that encourage fat storage. All of the carbohydrates in your meal plan
should be well thought out and should come from good slow release polysaccharides.
Starchy carbs will be your bodies preferred fuel source. It is my
preference that your starchy carbs come from natural, unrefined sources. More of the foods
natural nutrient density is preserved and is available to your body when you choose good
starchy carbs. Good choices for you starchy carbs include things like barley, brown rice,
corn, chickpeas, garbanzo beans, lima beans, oatmeal, peas, pinto beans, kidney beans,
potatoes, and sweet potatoes. I have always recommended these foods either fresh or frozen
to my clients. Canned vegetables aren't the preference.
Fibrous carbs, as the name implies, are higher in fiber than their
starchy counterparts. Fibrous carbs also, due to the higher fiber (cellulose) content,
don't offer quite the same energy yield as starchy carbs. Fibrous carbs serve a dual
benefit in your meal plan in that they not only yield an array of valuable vitamins,
minerals and electrolytes, but that they also slow digestion. A slower digestive rate
yields a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream. Once again, this is important so
that we avoid the peaks in blood sugar and we control insulin much more effectively this
way. Fibrous carbs are basically your "salad" type vegetables, things like
broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, spinach, kale, cabbage, celery, carrots,
onions, squash and zucchini. Again, it is my preference that these vegetables be fresh or
So by now I hope you 're getting a better understanding of
carbohydrates, what they are and how they should be used.