Carbohydrates provide our muscles with fuel and they are our most efficient way of receiving energy. They are mainly divided into two groups: simple carbohydrates, and complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates (including fruit and sweets, fizzy drinks and chocolates) are the most basic form of sugar and provide a quick, short energy burst that doesn’t last. They only add extra calories and not many nutrients.

Foods higher in carbohydrates include ones that provide dietary fibre and whole grains as well as those without added sugars. Natural food sources of carbohydrates include grains (rice, cereal); fruits (apples, oranges, bananas); starchy vegetables (peas, potatoes, corn); and dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt). To understand the functioning and role of carbohydrates, it is very important to know its types.

The two vary nutritionally, and are broken down in different ways during digestion.

Simple Carbohydrate

Simple carbohydrates are made up of ‘simple’ molecular structure and 1-2 sugar molecules. Simple carbs can be digested very quickly, and tend to elevate the blood sugar quickly. On consumption, these sugars are directly absorbed in the blood as glucose requirements of the body. Glucose provides instant energy as it reaches different parts of the body via blood. They are good for quick energy but need to be consumed in moderation to prevent rapid swings in blood sugar. Simple carbohydrates increase the stores of broken down fats which, if not burned or used up, can lead to obesity or other health issues. Simple carbohydrates are also known as sugars, and if consumed in excess can cause tooth decay.

Refined sugar, dairy sugar, fruit sugar, refined flour are all sources of simple carbs. Simple sugars are also present in natural foods like fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. In addition to these, honey, molasses brown sugar, soft drinks, sweets snack bars, corn syrup, maple syrup, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, etc., are rich sources of simple sugars.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, such as cereals, pasta, breads, rice, potatoes and vegetables are made up of long chains of sugar molecules. These take longer to break down into their elementary form and hence, require more time for digestion compared to simple carbohydrates and deliver sustainable energy on a more consistent, long term basis. Since these carbohydrates require more time for conversion, they are constantly used up by the body. Therefore, sugar converted to fat is not stored in a large quantity, unlike simple carbohydrates. A person who does lots of exercise, like running should have a diet high in these complex carbohydrates and they should be eaten on a ‘little and often’ basis to maintain sufficient glycogen in the muscles to prevent ‘hitting the wall’.

Complex carbs are often healthier and should make up a bigger part of our diet than simple carbs. They provide us with a more controlled release of blood sugar (and the corresponding insulin response), and generally provide better nutritional value.

Complex carbohydrates are of two types:

Starchy complex carbohydrates

These carbohydrates are long complex chains of simple sugars. Starch must be broken down through digestion before your body can use it as a glucose source. Some starches actually have a higher glycemic index than some sugars. In this sense, they are not “complex” for very long at all. People who are sensitive to sugar should avoid most starchy foods, since most starchy foods are rapidly broken down into sugar. Examples of starchy complex carbohydrates are corn, bread, cereal, rice, beans, pasta, wheat, grains, potatoes, etc.

Dietary fibres

These are indigestible foods that cannot be broken down into sugars. They are low in calories, and are essential for keeping the digestive process running clean and healthy. They can also help regulate blood glucose levels, as well as lower cholesterol levels, and promote regular digestion and excretion of waste. Whole grains and many fruits and vegetables, including dark leafy greens and orange-colored fruits and vegetables, are rich in fibre.

But what if you aren’t a runner or don’t exercise?

If you don’t burn up these stores by exercise and keep adding to them, then it’s only common sense that tells us that you will start to increase in size, mass and shape (put weight on and get flabby).

If you eat carbs earlier on in the day then there is more chance that they will get burned off throughout the day.  But what if you follow all the ‘expert’ advice and eat a jacket potato for tea or a sandwich late on because you’re hungry?  You will just be stock piling carbs which will turn to fat and make you bigger, heavier, and often unhappier.

Fizzy pop and other foods & drinks high in sugar (diet foods often have one type of sugar replaced for another) are also a great example of what not to touch!  Necking a pint of cola will give you a sugar high and your mind will often associate this good feeling with just having drank it.  Because these sugars are ‘simple’ carbs, the effects won’t last long – what goes up must come down and soon enough, after your recent sugar high you will come crashing back down!!  How do you get round this??? By drinking more cola!!! and so the cycle goes on.  Try it with water!!  Water speeds up metabolism, and is literally the water of life!!  It is the key to weight loss!!

So to sum it up;

Eat the right amount of the right carbs early on in the day to give you a slow release of energy that you can burn off. It will also increase your productivity in the day and set you up for a good night’s exercise.

Don’t eat carbs late on in the evening when they won’t get used up. Sumo wrestlers gain massive amounts of weight by eating mountains of potatoes and rice then immediately rolling back and going to sleep. If you’re eating your tea that contains anything other than a SMALL amount of carbs and then soon after (within 2 hours) going to bed then remind yourself you’re not a sumo and find a better alternative. If it’s close to bed time and you’re starving, a glass of water and soup should do the trick. Remember you’re not meant to be full after your meal and you SHOULD feel like you could eat more….BUT DONT!

Fuel up on carbs for exercise?

This is the conflict – if people want to lose weight this won’t help as they want to use fat stores first.  If you are doing serious endurance events then fuel up on carbs first.  But what about if you want to fuel up for exercise but are exercising to lose weight?

Fuel up for exercise

Water, protein, fruit, nuts and seeds should definitely be consumed an hour before exercise as all this is fuel for muscles and prevents muscle fatigue. Black coffee will give a kick start if needed but on the whole shouldn’t be necessary or used.

Replace fizzy pops and sugary drinks with water.


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