Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Educational Blog Post: What is a Carbohydrate and Why Do I Need Them?

Hello all!

As you all know, I finished (and passed-woo!) my class from Vanderbilt University on Nutrition, Health and Lifestyles from Coursera.org. Last week, I started a new class from the University of Pittsburgh online called Nutrition and Physical Activity for Health which is a 6 week course to help discuss the interaction between the foods you eat and the exercise you get. How does the combination of these two things effect your overall health and performance?

I wanted to start doing a weekly "educational" post which really focuses on what I am learning as I go about the body, nutrition and put it into a "digestible" format (get it?) for those who want to know more about these interactions but don't have the want to take courses.

There were many things in the 1st and 2nd weeks video lectures that I though where very interesting and I wanted to share with you especially relating to Carbohydrates and Protein. I have always been an advocate for "everything in moderation" diets meaning that I don't think it's a good idea to cut anything natural out of your diet which includes no-carb diets. As extreme as I will go is a few attempts at eating Paleo style which I wasn't that impressed with but understand the underlying concept of processing your food as little as possible.

So, let's start with the basics. What is a carbohydrate?

A carbohydrate is a sugar molecule that contains carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. These molecules can be simple (monosaccharides) which are things like glucose and fructose found in your blood and in fruit respectively or they can be complex carbohydrate (Disaccharides) which are things like sucrose or table sugar. There are also Polysaccharides which form glycogen, starches and fiber.

Carbohydrates are broken down mostly in your small intestine and large intestine which then takes the broken down pieces and delivers them to your liver which converts the pieces into glucose. Usually you hear Glucose referred to as 'blood sugar.'

There are 2 enzymes that help regulate blood sugar levels in the body which you are probably familiar with if you have ever had an experience with Diabetes. Insulin is the enzyme that is released by your pancreas when glucose levels are high and insulin helps bring it back down to normal and store any extra for use later. Once the glucose level in the cells and tissues is at a normal level, the pancreas stops/slows producing insulin.

On the other hand, the 2nd enzyme is called Glucagon which signals your liver to break down stored glucose in your body because you're not getting enough glucose.

What role  does a carbohydrate play in my health?

Carbohydrates are used for a slew of things in the body with the #1 thing being it's a main source of energy. (aka the glucose we just discussed)

Also, these blood sugars are converted into other compounds used in the body including amino acid chains like protein.

Digestive track health and body weight management.

The World Health Organization suggests that 55-75% of your total calories come from carbs but keep in mind that carbs are not just grains. Carbs are found in fruits, vegetables, and legumes. These carbohydrates are also high in Fiber which aid in digestive health naturally.

Some Scary Statistics

Carbohydrates that should be avoided are those that are very processed, high in sugar and low in fiber. 35.7% of the sources of added sugar is the diet of American's was due to sports drinks, energy drinks and soda. 15.4% was from processed foods and additives.

Added sugar can go under many names including High fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, maladextrose, etc.

How do I know what's good and bad?

Number 1 recommendation from me is to always read the label and be able to understand what you are eating. Good rules are to read the ingredient panel, if it has any ingredients that you can't pronounce or fake sugar is 1 of the 1st 3 ingredients, put it back. Also, if the food you are looking at has more than 12 ingredients -not worth it.

The Glycemic Index is a scale that ranks foods according to their potential for raising blood glucose levels. I was surprised to find that some of the foods I eat regularly could be causing my blood sugar to spike like potato's, raisins and rice because of their high carbohydrate and sugar contents.

For more information on the Glycemix Index.

Next Education Blog Post  I will try and write about proteins, amino acids or possibly how your muscles work. There is just so many interesting things!!

Let me know if you like these kind of posts and if you found this helpful. I want to write so that my readers enjoy and learn to have a healthier life. Comment below!

**Please note that while I am taking these classes, they are for no credit. I am not a registered dietitian and am not yet a licensed personal trainer. These are simply things I learned in my studies and found useful. Always consult a doctor and nutritionist before drastically changing a diet or exercise plan. Also, the body is a very complex system and this short blogpost does not encompass all the inner workings of this complex system. I encourage you to use this as a catalyst to find out more information on your own or from your doctor.

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