Foods are made up of three macronutrients that provide calories in the diet: protein, fat and carbohydrate. Carbohydrate and protein provide four calories per gram while fats provide nine calories per gram. It’s important to include the proper balance of these three nutrients in your menu planning to ensure a healthy diet.
Carbohydrates have been in the news for the past few years, mostly as a result of the flood of diet books in the market, with the Atkins and South Beach being the two most popular. Both diets distinguish between complex and simple carbohydrates, which are often referred to as the “good and the bad” carbohydrate, respectively.
All carbohydrates contain sugars, which eventually get converted into glucose, our body’s major fuel source. While our muscles can get energy from other metabolic processes in our bodies, our brain depends on glucose, exclusively, for its proper function. The two carbohydrates differ in many ways, but mostly on how quickly the body processes them. Complex carbohydrates are not refined and have more fiber, so the body processes them more slowly. Examples of complex carbohydrates are: fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain bread, legumes, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and whole-wheat pasta.
Simple carbohydrates have either been stripped of their fiber through manufacturing or are naturally low in fiber to begin with. Because of this, the body metabolizes them more quickly. Examples of simple carbohydrates are: granulated sugar, corn and maple syrups, honey, molasses, fruit juices, soda, white bread and white pasta. Naturally occurring sugars like lactose, found in milk products, and fructose, in fruit juices are also referred to as simple carbohydrates.
Eating too many simple carbohydrates can lead to weight gain because the quick blood sugar rise triggers the release of the hormone, insulin. Insulin’s main function is to lower blood sugars but it also transports fat around your body. An overproduction of insulin, also called hyperinsulinemia, results when your body finds itself having to produce more insulin in order to achieve a normal blood sugar level. You may notice how hungry you become soon after eating a bagel or a plate of pasta. This occurs because when you eat these simple carbohydrate-rich foods, the surge of insulin causes your blood sugar to drop, sending out a sensation of hunger. Our instinct is to reach for a quick acting carbohydrate to get our blood sugar up. It’s your body’s message telling you it’s time to eat.
It’s important to have a balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates in your diet, with the emphasis being on more complex carbohydrates and less simple ones. An easy way to ensure the right kind of carbohydrates is to choose whole grain bread and cereals at breakfast, legumes (bean based soups, vegetarian chili) at lunch, and to include vegetables, salads and grains such as brown rice, bulgur, or whole-wheat pasta at dinner. Select fresh fruits for desserts. Good snack choices include fresh or dried fruit, a whole grain granola bar, or hummus with vegetable sticks or whole grain crackers.