How Do I Understand Complex Carbohydrates?
It can be confusing to hear the media and marketing claims say that carbs are bad, while other health authorities actually recommend them. One side says carbs contribute to obesity and the other says they can improve your health. So, which is correct?
First things first, carbs are not an evil macronutrient. The main purpose of them is to provide the body with energy. In the digestion process, carbohydrates are broken down to molecules of glucose, which helps fuel the brain, central nervous system, as well as exercise.
When it comes to how much carbohydrate you should eat as a part of a healthy diet, it’s based on your activity level. The more active you are, the more carbohydrate you need to fuel and recover from exercise. The less you move, the less carbohydrate you need.
However, it is important to note that not all carbs are created equal. There are three main categories of carbohydrates: sugar, starches and fiber.
- Sugar: As a short-chain, easy-to-digest carbohydrate, sugar can provide your body with quick energy. However, it also spikes your blood sugar when eaten by itself. While there are naturally occurring sugars found in fruit and milk, much of the sugar found in the diet comes from added sugar. Added sugar means just that, sugar was added to a food or product to make it sweet. Examples of these “simple” or refined carbohydrates include baked goods, candy, sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and sweet tea, as well as many cereals, granola bars and other packaged convenience foods.
- Starches: Considered a “complex” carbohydrate, starches are long chains of glucose that take longer to break down than simple carbohydrates. Examples of starchy complex carbohydrates include potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and peas. Beans, oats, barley and rice also contain some starch.
- Fiber: Fiber is another “complex” carbohydrate and is the indigestible component of plant foods. It helps your body in a variety of ways. One of fiber’s best features is that it slows down digestion and helps to stabilize blood sugar. It also works as a prebiotic to feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Additionally, fiber can improve heart health by helping to lower and manage cholesterol. The recommendation is to consume 25-38 grams of fiber a day for proper health. Examples of fiber include fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
The goal is to increase complex carbohydrates in the diet, while trying to minimize simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. One way to do this is to try to eat more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and whole grains.
Whole grains can be a bit confusing as many packages market the term “whole grain” on foods that also contain added sugars. A “whole grain” means that it contains all three parts of the grain: the bran, germ and endosperm. The bran is the outer hard shell of the grain, which contains fiber and most of the B-vitamins and minerals. The germ is the next layer packed with nutrients, including essential fatty acids and vitamin E. The endosperm is the soft center of the grain where the starch exists.
If you eat a complex carbohydrate, “whole grain” food, you get all the nutrients the grain has to offer. Examples include oats, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat, bran and more. On the other hand, choosing processed or refined grains removes the bran and cuts out most of the fiber and lots of the nutrients.
To ensure you are choosing a whole grain, forget the marketing claims and look at the ingredient list! If the first ingredient says “whole” in front of the grain like wheat, oat, bran etc., that is a nutrient-rich choice. Then check out the nutrition facts label and look for at least three grams of fiber per serving and less sugar. While there is no specific sugar recommendation per serving, a good rule of thumb is to make one-third or less of the total carbohydrates coming from sugar.
As you evaluate your diet and try to eat more complex carbohydrates, think of making nutrient swaps like the ones below and before long your day will be full of fiber and nutrients!
- Apple instead of apple juice
- Oatmeal instead of waffles
- 100 percent whole grain cereal instead of a fruity, sugary cereal
- Brown rice instead of white rice
- Quinoa/whole grain pasta instead of white pasta
- Potatoes with skin instead of French fries
- 100 percent whole wheat bread instead of white or enriched flour bread
- Blending fruits and veggies in a smoothie instead of squeezing their juices
If you are interested to hear more and receive personalized nutrition, check out STYR’s app, fitness tracker and suite of connected smart devices. Through the platform, you can track and log activity, food, hydration, sleep, nutrition, mood and more to personalize your nutrition needs based on data, science and access to registered dietitians, nutritionists and personal trainers.
Please note that this information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. We insist that you always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical/health condition or treatment and before initiating a new health care regime. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the STYR app or on www.MyNutritioniQ.com.