There’s a lot of information (science and opinion) regarding carbohydrates. Regardless of how confusing it all may be, the good news is that it all boils down to a few, easy to understand, principles:
What are Carbs?
Carbs are what keep us going. They are the primary fuel for our entire lives and essential to our nutrition. Most of us have learned about them since grade school, but we still may not fully understand the basics. Our brain cells and muscles cells are designed to operate on carbohydrates. Our body takes food with carbohydrates, digests them, turns them into glucose, and then metabolizes the glucose. Glucose is necessary for our regular metabolic process. Glucose is the body’s preferred and cleanest energy source. Without it, the body begins to starve.
In August 2015, a study showed evidence suggesting an increase in carbohydrates in the diet of early humans lead to evolution and growth of the brain, playing a much bigger role than originally suspected. Previously, many scientists believed protein played the key role in heightened brain development, but they now believe carbohydrates played a significant role also.
Up until a few hundred years ago, humans were eating only what we now refer to as “clean” carbs. However, with industrialization came refining processes that transformed whole, healthy sources of carbohydrates into vacant, nutritionless sources of “empty” carbs. People refer to these two different types of carbohydrates in different ways, but for our purposes here, they can be divided into good carbs and bad carbs.
The term “good carbs” is often synonymous with “whole carbs,” meaning unrefined carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can be divided into three main categories:
- Sugars: These are the sweet, short-chain carbohydrates found in foods. They take the form of glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose.
- Starches: These are the long chains of glucose molecules, which are digested down into simple glucose.
- Fiber: Fiber is different from the other two in that it is not actually digestible. However, it is included because it feeds the bacteria in the digestive system.
Good carbohydrates provide powerful nutrients and fiber in a comfortable way for your body to digest, resulting in a nice even stream of energy to your system. Here a few examples of good carbohydrates to try in your diet:
- Oatmeal – Oatmeal provides complex carbohydrates and lots of fiber, making it a filling meal.
- Brown Rice – A single cup of brown rice can contain 45 grams of carbohydrates. Brown rice also packs in lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber; making it one of the best options on the list.
- Whole Wheat Pasta – Traditionally, pasta is made with refined durum wheat flour, but recently more brands have begun to offer a whole wheat option. This provides a more wholesome and complex carb.
- Beans – Beans are often overlooked these days, especially as a carb. They are low-glycemic, which means they process slowly in the body and provide steady energy.
- Quinoa – All the rage right now; Quinoa does not disappoint. Quinoa is an edible seed we consume which comes from a grain and is packed with nutrients.
“Bad carbs” are those vacant calories often referred to as “empty carbs,” and many other unfavorable names. Empty carbs are empty because they are calories without any nutrients, not as some would hope – nutrients without calories.
These can also be divided into three categories:
- Refined Flour: This includes white flour, wheat flour, many multi-grain flours, durum flour, and any other non-whole grain flour.
- Refined Sugar: This includes most sugars we encounter such as white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, fructose corn syrup, and other refined sweeteners. Whole foods such as honey should not be included in this category.
- White Rice: White rice is very similar to refined flour; however, it gets its own category because of its ubiquitousness.
With brief reflection, it is easy to see that most readily available foods are made with one of these three bad carbs: regular pasta, most breads, most breakfast cereals, pretzels, pizza dough, cookies, cakes, bagels, muffins, crackers, pastries, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods.
These foods are not only sans nutrition, they also actively contribute to many severe health problems. Their high amounts of sugar lead to spikes in blood sugar and ultimately type II diabetes. Their empty calories and loads of sugar put on the pounds and end in obesity. These and other factors even lead to heart disease and may contribute to asthma, allergies, and even arthritis.
The Big and Important Exception
Now many readers of this blog are runners and many runners have experienced runners’ trots. Runners’ trots are one thing not everyone likes to talk about: it’s diarrhea that happens while on the road running. A most unfortunate place for its occurrence. As a budding nutritionist, you may realize that foods high in fiber facilitate the digestive system, and sometimes over-facilitate the digestive system. You may have also realized that most or all of the “good carbs” foods listed are high in fiber. This can lead to a problem when preparing for a big run.
“While fiber is unquestionably a good thing that most of us don’t get enough of,” says Matt Fitzgerald, “poorly timed fiber intake can have unfortunate consequences for the endurance athlete.”
The truth is, many experienced athletes don’t ingest solely “good carbs” right before a long event. They actually opt for the refined grains. That’s not to say they splurge and eat a dozen donuts, but they often eat white rice and white pasta instead of their whole grain counterparts. That is because the refined grains will provide easily digestible carbohydrates, but also lead to a slightly constipated digestive system, mitigating the risk of runners’ trots in the middle of the big race.
The Mayo Clinic agrees, “You may need to avoid or limit some high-fiber foods one or two days before your event.”
So in the end, there is a time and place for everything. Apply these essential principles to utilize the power of glucose to fuel your running program, whether you’re on the treadmill or on the road.