Why Carbohydrates Need to Stay in Our Diet

Oatmeal porridge, healthy breakfast food
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Carbohydrates are essential for optimal health and fitness. Unfortunately, many fad diets recommend eliminating carbs from our daily food intake. Convincing marketing has the general populous believing carbohydrates make us fat. Carb bashing has caused many of us to eliminate this very important macronutrient from our nutrition. 

Carbohydrates may get most of the blame for keeping America fat, but this is far from the truth. In fact, carbs are the primary energy source needed for the human body. They are a macronutrient which means the body requires lots of carbs to function at optimum levels. Understanding their role should cause us to question leaving carbs out of our diet. How is removing a food group essential to body functioning a good thing? Instead of eliminating carbohydrates, what should be clarified is the type of carbs we should be eating for improved health and fitness. 

Carbohydrates Provide Energy

When we eat carbohydrates, we provide our body with fuel (energy) to function at every physiological level. Our digestive system breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar), which feeds energy to our cells, tissues, and organs. Energy not utilized immediately is stored in our muscles and liver where our body uses it on an as-needed basis. Without adequate carbohydrate consumption, our body may experience feeling tired, headache, lethargic and unable to push through a workout. 

What continues to be a problem is all carbohydrates lumped together as bad for you and considered the reason for weight gain and poor health. There appears to be a lack of understanding about the right kind of carbs to keep in our diet for the body to function well. Also, athletic performance can be adversely affected without an adequate amount of carbohydrates. Our body requires all fuel sources, including carbohydrates, to perform at its best in and out of the gym. 

The Breakdown

Carbohydrates provide energy through a digestive process that breaks down sugars and starches to create simple sugars. The simple sugars are then absorbed into our bloodstream and become glucose or blood sugar. The pancreas releases insulin in response to blood sugar and working together enable glucose to enter our cells. Glucose fuels all our physical activities from sitting to watch a movie, breathing or engaging in a workout. Additional energy or glucose is stored in our muscles and liver for later use or is converted to fat.

The possibility of carbohydrates converting to fat is the buzz statement marketed to sell fad diets. We tend to focus only on fat stores potentially caused by eating carbs instead of how essential they are to support body function.

When all macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats) are consumed in proper amounts, our body utilizes the nutrients to make us healthy and fit.

Studies indicate carbohydrates including leafy greens, vegetables, and whole grains are shown to help us reduce body fat, gain muscle, and improve athletic performance. It appears better carbohydrate education is recommended on how to make healthier choices for this important macronutrient. 

Other Carbohydrate Health Benefits

Carbs have been shown to protect the body against certain disease and cancer. Complex carbohydrates like oatmeal are rich in fiber and when consumed regularly indicated to reduce the risk of hypertension and heart problems. Additional health benefits include reduced incidence of obesity, protection against Type-2 diabetes and an optimal digestive system. Carbohydrates are also shown to promote weight loss and the ability to maintain the goal weight.

Contrary to fad diet claims, evidence shows healthy carbohydrate selection isn’t linked to weight gain or obesity. Research indicates carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet providing vital nutrients the body requires for optimal functioning. Because carbs aren’t created equal, it will be the consistent selection and consumption of good carbohydrates keeping our body within healthy weights and feeling our best.

Carbs for Health and Fitness

The two main types of carbohydrates are simple and complex. Simple carbs include sugars naturally occurring in foods like fruits, vegetables, and milk. Added sugars found in prepared or processed foods are also listed under the simple carb category but aren't as healthy. They have fewer nutrients than foods with naturally-occurring sugars. Simple carbohydrates enter the bloodstream quickly providing rapid energy for body functions. Many active adults and athletes will consume raisins or banana prior to a workout and feel this provides adequate energy for the session. Other simple carbs are known for their superior antioxidants and high nutrient value include:

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbs include fiber and starch and take longer to digest before the body can use the glucose as an energy source. Samples of healthy complex carbs include whole grain bread, quinoa, sweet potatoes, beans, most vegetables, and oats. It’s recommended to wait at least an hour to exercise after consuming complex carbs to avoid possible stomach upset. Many individuals also combine a protein source like egg whites with complex carbs, especially if preparing for an intense weight training session.

Complex carbs are higher in nutrient value than simple carbohydrates and should make up the largest percent of our nutrition. The following complex carbohydrates are an excellent source of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals:

  • Leafy greens and vegetables
  • Beans
  • Whole grains
  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Legumes
  • Raw nuts and seeds
  • Fruits (apples and berries)  

A Word From Verywell

The body functions at its best when healthy selections of both simple and complex carbs are consumed on a regular basis. Learning how to select the best carbohydrates to maintain a healthy body will reduce the anxiety surrounding all the hype about not eating carbs and enable a more simplistic and realistic approach to eating healthy. 

By Darla Leal
Darla Leal is a Master Fitness Trainer, freelance writer, and the creator of Stay Healthy Fitness, where she embraces a "fit-over-55" lifestyle.