Nutrition 101 - Everything You Need to Know About Carbohydrates

Does the word carbs scare you? It shouldn't! With a new diet coming out nearly everyday, it's a struggle to rationalize what is and isn't healthy to eat. It's confusing, mentally draining and more importantly frustrating! 

I've created this three part Nutrition 101 series to help educate you and help you confidently craft meals that are catered to your specific health and fitness goals. 

We're all just trying to sort through all of the material that social media and the news are throwing at us in regards to food. Let's take a step back for a moment and take a true look at what carbohydrates actually are - energy! That's it! 

 

WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES? 

Simply put, they are chemical compounds that are composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules. If we take it a step further, carbohydrates can be broken up into four categories: 

  • Monosaccharides

  • Disaccharides

  • Polysaccharides 

  • Fiber

From a caloric standpoint, carbohydrates are one of our three main macronutrients and provide 4 calories per gram. But don't go getting ahead of yourself and shoot your carb intake sky high because they're lower in calories than fat! There's a bit more to it - say hello to simple and complex carbohydrates.  

 

SIMPLE VS COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES

One of my favourite carb loaded topics to talk about because it opens your eyes to the way you see carbs. They aren't evil! I promise ;) 

An easy way to remember the the difference between simple and complex carbs is their sugar and fibre content. 

SIMPLE CARBS.png
 

Simple carbohydrates are sugars in various form such as galactose, glucose, and fructose. Because of their chemical composition, they provide a quick burst of energy for the body and are absorbed into the bloodstream quickly. Think of syrups, sweeteners, candy, refined grains (most white foods), cupcakes, pastries.... basically any sugary, sweet or delicious tasting food. Haha, sorry to give you a minor sugar craving ;) 

Complex carbs, on the other hand, are on their own little health island. They have a longer carbon chain and are made of three or more sugars along with some fibre. Think of fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains. They might have the same building blocks as sugar, but they take far more time to break down which means they are SLOW digesting. Staying fuller for longer is the key to weight loss people! Think back to the last time you gorged on candy and sweets - you were likely hungry half an hour later. Try indulging on a rich steak with an avocado and broccoli salad. I guarantee you that you'll be full for hours and won't go on a blood sugar rollercoaster ride! 

As thrilling as that might be, it comes at a price - in this case, it's weight gain, fat to be specific. Boo.... So when we're talking about complex carbs, we are really talking about eating blood sugar balancing fruits and vegetables that result in a more gradual insulin response and an increased level of satiety. 

 
SIMPLE CARBS (2).png

SO NOW WHAT? 

Well, now is the fun part, deciding what you're going to eat! C'mon who doesn't love seeing those Tasty Food videos on Facebook and dreaming up some recipes to test in their kitchen? I'll be the first to put my hand up! 

Now that's you've graduated from Carbs 101 class, it's time to start composing your plate. Personally, I choose to eat a lower carb diet for a few reasons - but before everyone jumps in on the great carb debate, hear a girl out. I spend a lot of my day sitting or standing working at my computer and then exercise later in the evening. I purposely choose to time my carb intake around my workouts. Why? For enhancing my performance and energy levels in the gym. It wouldn't make much sense for me to start my morning off with a giant bowl of oatmeal topped with a full banana, dried fruit, and maple syrup. Firstly, my energy levels would crash about an hour later after taking in all that sugar, and secondly, I don't exercise until the afternoon usually so I don't really need carbs until later in the day. With my early morning studying sessions and the bulk of my day spent writing blog posts and programs for clients, I need to be sharp! So I purposely choose to eat slow carbs (mostly vegetables), protein and fat for the bulk of the day and have a piece of fruit before my workout or eat a heavier carb meal afterwards. This stops my energy levels from peaking and crashing throughout the day and allows me to be focused and mentally clear for the entire day. Boo yeah!

Is this the approach I would take for everyone? Absolutely not. I work with everyone from triathletes, to hockey players and CrossFit athletes. Their performance would suffer drastically is I took this approach as they utilize a ton of glycogen for their workouts, meaning they need glucose and carbs to fuel their intense workouts! Now for my desk jockeys and non-gym goers, it's a different story. I typically take a higher protein and fat diet approach with them because we are focusing solely on blood sugar management. The point that I am making is that your carbohydrate intake is individual to you and your activity levels. Ultimately, it's up to you to track how you are feeling when you make dietary changes. Do you sleep better when you have the bulk of your carbs in the evening? Are you someone who functions best off of a huge breakfast or are you not hungry until mid-day? Start to think and make choices for yourself and your body type, experiment! You'll never know until you try and if you need a little help, you know who to call ;) 

I recommend using the app, My Fitness Pal to track your food intake to make sure that you are getting enough of both your macronutrients and micronutrients on a daily basis. 

SIMPLE CARBS (1).png

I love carbs, slow carbs that is ;) If you've made it this far in the blog post, you'll know that slow carbs are essentially complex carbohydrates with a high fibre content. Before we jump into what you can expect when choosing a lower carb diet, I want to touch on soluble and insoluble fibre. You might recognize these terms and skip right to looking at the sugar content of the food you're analyzing, but this is an important number to pay attention to. Soluble fibre is fibre that is well, soluble in water. It becomes a gelatinous substance that swells, absorbing the water and lends a helping hand to moderating blood glucose levels and lowering your cholesterol. The majority of our foods contain a combination of soluble and insoluble fibre. Insoluble fibre is essentially the opposite of soluble fibre, as it does not dissolve in water and exits the body in nearly the same form that it entered. Insoluble fibre helps to reduce constipation by aiding in the formation of stool and promotes healthy elimination by pushing waste out of the small intestine. Don't  stress too much about the exact amount of soluble and insoluble fibre you are getting on a daily basis - shift your attention to eating more green and starchy vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds in order to hit your daily fibre goal.

Okay, now lets get into the good stuff! What you can expect when going slower carb. 

1. Low Blood Sugar 

  • You might notice your blood sugar dipping at first as you adjust to the lower carb intake. It's normal, but it will take some time for your body to adapt to utilizing less sugar and more fats. 

2. Mood Swings

  • At first! But they go away, promise. Otherwise, I would have very few friends trust me. Going lower carb wasn't fun at first, but now I feel amazing eating a higher fat diet because I very rarely crash and with the higher fibre intake, I stay full for hours. 

3. Losing Water Weight 

  • Before you get too excited that the weight that you've been wanting to lose is melting off, know that it is mostly water at first. Sorry to burst your bubble. If you're on a low carb diet and taking in less than 100 grams per day, our bodies brilliantly shift into gluconeogenesis. This is the process in which the liver starts to generate glucose that is required for brain function and draws the glucose from glycerol in lipids and amino acids in proteins. When we reduce our intake of glucose, we are reducing the amount of water that our body holds onto. For every gram of glycogen we store in our liver and muscles, our body holds onto 3-4 grams of water. So as we transition to a slower carb diet, we are essentially flushing the water that was associated with the glycogen we were previously storing. So if you fall off track and indulge in a "cheat meal" (I hate that word) and wake up panicking about the "rapid weight gain" you are experiencing,  know that it is water that you are retaining. 

RECAP 

Okay, just to recap - eat plenty of vegetables, low sugar fruits (and pair them with protein and fat), legumes, nuts and seeds. Shoot for a minimum of 25 grams of fibre per day (I personally aim for 50g) and drink plenty of water to promote healthy elimination and digestion of your food. Boom. It's that simple. Eat colourful vegetables (mostly green) and play around with your carb intake taking note of how your energy levels change as your experiment with eating slower digesting carbs. 

Lindsay Mustard