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What Are Carbohydrates?

Many believe protein is the heart of sports nutrition, but carbohydrates are actually the foundation. Healthy adults, and especially athletes, can benefit from carbohydrates for many reasons. Carbohydrates provide benefits beyond endurance. What differs is how and when carbohydrates are used.

 

Why Carbohydrates Matter

Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient and it is recommended that 45 to 65% of total daily calories come from carbohydrates. You may be wondering why carbohydrates needs are well above the needs of dietary fat and protein. The simple answer is energy. Carbohydrates are the body's preferred fuel source. It is a critical energy-yielding nutrient that helps overall energy by fueling working muscles, refueling muscle, and supplying energy for muscle recovery and development. Carbohydrates also play a role in supporting healthy brain function, metabolism, and even performance. Let’s take a closer look at the purpose of carbohydrates and dietary sources.

 

The Foundation of Carbohydrates

All carbohydrates are made up of sugars. Each type of carbohydrate differs from one another chemically and can be classified by the number of sugar units as well as the type of sugars. They can be found as a single sugar unit or can bond together to form longer chains of sugars. You may be familiar with the terms simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates or ‘simple sugars’ include one or two sugar molecules. Whereas complex carbohydrates contain many sugar molecules linked together.

 

Simple Carbohydrates

Complex Carbohydrates

Fructose

Glycogen

Galactose

Starch - Amylose

Glucose

Starch - Amylopectin

Sucrose (Glucose + Fructose)

Soluble Fiber

Lactose (Glucose + Galactose)

Insoluble Fiber

Maltose (Glucose + Glucose)

 

 

After a carbohydrate source is consumed, it can then be converted to glucose. Glucose then circulates in the brain and through blood to all tissues. Many cells in the body prefer glucose as an energy source. It’s the body’s main source of energy. All carbohydrates, except fiber, can be converted to glucose. Then there’s glycogen. Glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrates. The body can convert glucose to glycogen, which can be temporarily stored in the liver and skeletal muscle for ‘future use’ when energy needs increase. It’s made up of many glucose units linked together. The body can tap into glycogen stores, which can be broken back down into glucose for a readily available source of energy. However, if glycogen stores become depleted, then the body can become fatigued. Ultimately, the body will seek glucose first and glycogen second. If carbohydrates intake is insufficient to meet energy demand, then the body may turn to alternate sources for energy. If glucose is depleted, then the body may use protein and/or fat for energy. Once glycogen stores are depleted, the body may break down tissues such as muscle and/or fat stores for energy.

 

Dietary Sources of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates stretch far beyond grains like breads and pastas. In fact, carbohydrates are actually found in just about every food group including dairy, fruits and even vegetables. Dietary sources can be categorized as either simple or complex. Let's take a look at the difference. 

Simple Carbohydrates: Simple Carbohydrates are short chains of sugar units, which provide a quick source of energy. Once consumed, they are quickly absorbed in the small intestine. This results in a spike in your blood glucose levels and a boost of short-term energy. Simple Carbohydrates can be found in Dairy products like Milk, Yogurt, Cheese, Cottage Cheese, and Ice Cream. They are also found in Fruit Juices and Fruits. However, Fruits may include a mixture of both simple and complex due to the Fiber content found within the peel, skin or seeds. For example, Pineapple, Jackfruit, Lychee, Kumquat, Pomelo, Passion Fruit, Dragon Fruit, Kiwi, Banana, Mango, Peaches, Plums, Apples and Durian. They can also be found in Refined Grains (the outer husk or fiber has been removed) such as White Bread, Cereals, Muffins, White Flour, White Rice, and Pretzels. Lastly, Simple Carbohydrates include other sources such as Honey, Sweetened Cereals, Candy, and baked goods made with Simple Sugars like Cookies, Cakes, and Pies. Simple Carbohydrates can be used with meals, snacks, closer to an activity, during and/or after activity as needed.

Complex Carbohydrates: Complex Carbohydrates are long chains of sugar units, which provide a sustained source of energy. Once consumed, they are slowly absorbed as they take longer for the body to break down. This results in a slower digestion and a prolonged release of energy over time. Complex Carbohydrates include Starches and Fiber. Starches can be found in a variety of foods, including Potatoes, Squash, Oats, Cereals and Breads. Other examples of Complex Carbohydrates include Millet, Soybeans, Beans, Lentils, Peas, Corn, Potatoes, Oats, Wheat, Barley, Quinoa, Rye, Buckwheat, Whole Wheat Bread, Whole Wheat Pasta, and Whole Grain Rice.  Complex Carbohydrates can be used first thing in the morning, and throughout the day with meals and/or snacks and following activity.

 

Wrap Up

Overall, it’s important to remember that carbohydrates are a fundamental part of a balanced diet. They are essential in helping to fuel the body and muscles. Also, depending on the source, they can provide different types of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Remember, both simple and complex carbohydrates play an important role in energy. The times you consume each type may depend on your schedule and types of activity. Embrace carbohydrates and use them to your advantage. Keep balance, variety and moderation in mind all while finding what works best for you, your activity and your goals.

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