Carbohydrates are often demonized and characterized as “the one” that makes weight gain so profound. I’m here to tell you this is not the case and it’s time we take a closer look at the facts before committing to a “bread boycott”.

What are carbs?

molecule-1166570-639x577Carbs are “hydrated carbons” as the name carbohydrate implies; they are sugar compounds made with carbon and water attached. See – nothing scary! Not only do our bodies need carbs for immediate energy, carbs are the only fuel source for the brain and red blood cells (a little science nerdy nerd fact for you in case the dinner table conversation runs out of “energy” – pun totally intended;))

Moving on, carbohydrates have an energy cost of 4 calories per gram (protein has 4, fats have 9, and alcohol has 7). Carbs are the body’s primary and preferred energy currency. In contrast, protein is an inefficient fuel source and is the last macronutrient to be “sacrificed” to fuel performance and usually occurs in states of starvation or lack of stored energy. Fat is also a fuel source and is what keeps us going at rest. This is not to say that you you aren’t burning carbs as well, but there is, let’s say, a preferred order of operations within the body. With training, one can improve fuel source utilization, but we will tackle that one later! 🙂

Types of Carbs

Let’s keep this simple. Carbs are named for the number of bonds they have. Monosaccharides (the simplest form such as glucose, fructose, and galactose). Disaccharides (double sugar units such as sucrose, maltose, and lactose). Oligosaccharides (a chain of 3-10 or fewer sugars combine) and polysaccharides (a long chain of sugars such as glycogen and starch). The longer the chain – the more complex the carbohydrate.

How to choose the best option

Believe it or not, selecting a quality carbohydrate  does not have to be tricky or require you to know any amount of biochemistry! This is good news. Instead of categorizing carbs as “good” and “bad”, let’s shift the thinking to “complex”, “simple”, and “low nutrient density”.

“Complex”: A goal – make at least half the grains or carbs in your diet of the “complex” variety. Items such as whole wheat bread (not enriched or bleached flour), high fiber, legumes, brown rice, whole grain pastas, starchy veggies).

“Simple”: This is where things can get a bit confusing. Fruit sugar is a simple carbohydrate, but it is NOT one you want to avoid necessarily. Half the dinner plate should be fruits and veggies! Fill up on fresh or frozen fruit (no sugar added). Even canned (in its own juices) is a great source of vitamins and nutrients.

“Low Nutrient Density”: We are talking about heavily processed foods and foods with VERY low nutrients for the overall caloric value. Examples – baked goods, white bread and white flour based products, candy, soda, juice, cake, etc. These types of products not only wreak havoc on metabolic functions, but they do a number on your teeth – let’s keep these to a minimum. In other words, these foods should not have a dominating presence in anyone’s daily diet habits. That said, yes, eat your birthday cake (not all of it), enjoy a decadent dessert on date night, or round out an evening with a nice glass of cab and a couple of squares of dark chocolate. Doing this every once in awhile will not derail your healthy living practices. I promise.


Take Home Message: Carbs are not the enemy; a poor selection of carbohydrate sources, however, are. Being mindful of the quality of a food is key to keeping on track with healthy eating. Another key component is learning to enjoy a “sometimes” food in moderation.

So, go ahead, have your cake and eat it too. 😉 The message is and will always be to create balanced – not deprived – living.

Until next time…Meet you at the Well.

Erin Nitschke

Passionate wife, mother, college educator, writer, blogger, and health and fitness professional.


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