Carbohydrates are molecules made up of sugars. So let’s start there. Sugars are substances that often taste sweet in their simplest forms and our bodies use them as fuel to make energy. Without energy we can’t move, our muscles won’t work, our brains won’t work and our organs cannot function. So we need some sugar for our bodies to work just like we need gas for a car to work. Our body’s premium fuel is glucose, the simplest carbohydrate. We break it down and convert it into our body’s specific energy packets which are called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).
Plants need energy to survive as well. Even though it doesn’t look like they’re doing much, they are growing, respiring, making seeds and flowers and all sorts of things that require energy. They make their own energy by using sunshine to make glucose which they then use to make other sugars or ATP energy for immediate use. ATP cannot be stored, but glucose can be stored. Plants connect many many glucose molecules together and make larger carbohydrates for storage purposes. One great example of a food that is mostly carbohydrate or stored glucose is a regular potato. But potatoes aren’t sweet right! That’s because our taste buds can only recognize the sweet taste of sugars when they’re in really small simple molecules like what we find in sweet table sugar. So anyway, plants store their glucose as carbohydrates so they can have energy for the future… and then we eat them.
When humans and animals eat the plants and get our carbohydrates from them, our bodies break the carbohydrates back down into glucose so we can use it to make our own ATP energy to move around and live our lives. And that’s the story of carbohydrates. It’s clear we get most of our carbohydrates from plant based foods, starchy plants like potatoes or rice, sweet fleshy fruits, foods made with flour and sugar such as bread, cakes, cookies, and so many other things we eat regularly. As our bodies process the carbohydrates we eat, we break them down into smaller sugars and then finally into glucose. We then use that to fuel most of what we do.
So here’s the thing, just because our body needs it doesn’t mean we have to eat lots and lots of it. We just need enough to meet our needs, and for the most part we get more than enough thorough our regular eating habits. But what happens when we take in more fuel than we use?
Simple; we store it. We aren’t plants though, so our storage system is different. If we’ve eaten a lot of carbohydrates, more than we actually use, we have all this extra glucose hanging around. Since the human body is developed to survive under difficult conditions like starvation, our bodies are reluctant to just waste all this valuable extra energy-producing glucose just in case we can’t find more food to fuel us for a while.
It first stores a short term supply that gets us to our next meal by converting the glucose to glycogen which it stores in our liver and muscles, so even if we don’t eat more glucose for a few hours we still have a constant supply of energy that we can pull from. We can only store a limited amount of glycogen before our glycogen reserves get full. But if after that there is still more left-over glucose, rather than waste it, our bodies place it into our long-term storage system by breaking it down and reassembling it into Fat. If we can’t find any food for a few days or weeks, our bodies will break down the energy stored as fat and keep us going for some time until we can find more food and refuel with carbohydrates.
Nowadays, for many of us, we don’t go very long without food, so there aren’t that many opportunities for us to use our stored fat energy. If we’re eating too many carbohydrates and our bodies are not using it for energy to live or move around, we just keep storing it as fat. There’s nothing wrong with some fat, our bodies need fat to be healthy as we will see in our next “Health Talk!” post, but too much fat combined with not enough physical activity can be cumbersome and start affecting how the body functions, making you less healthy. The solution, eat the right amount of carbohydrates that will let your body do everything it needs to do AND do more physical activity so you can use out some of the extra carbohydrate energy you have left.
So can we just skip the carbs? Nope. Although most of your body can break down fat and use it for energy, our brains, nervous system and heart rely on energy from glucose to fuel them. So our bodies do need carbohydrates. Not a super large amount, but enough to keep us fueled and functioning every day. The best way to get your carbohydrates is from their natural sources – plants. Get them from fruits like citrus, berries, bananas, melons, or vegetables, like carrots, beets, potatoes, yucca/cassava, yams, sweet potatoes and many others. There are lots of options for natural sources. Processed foods, especially those made with flour and sugar or sweet drinks with lots of added sugar or high fructose corn syrup, can push you into the excess-carbohydrates-that-need-to-be-stored situation really quickly. This is why you don’t necessarily have to eat fatty foods to get excess fat in your body. However, like I said in the last “Health Talk!” eating with moderation and balance allows you to fit most foods into your diet. So if you love cookies (like I do), eat them in moderation and balance them with other more nutrient dense foods during the day and you’ll be fine. That’s it for today’s “Health Talk!” on Blackademically Inclined. Check back in two weeks when I’ll talk about fats and oils.
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