What’s Up with Carbs?
Are they for comfort or energy?
Published: June 11, 2012
A quick course in this mysterious nutrient.
Decades ago, when I was on the ski team in high school, we used to get “instant energy” by chugging from a jar of honey right before we’d go out to compete. It was instant energy all right—it gave you an immediate rush that was gone in an instant. What I’ve learned since then is that you can’t rely on the instant energy you get from carbohydrates to help you perform for the rest of the day.
What are carbohydrates anyway? They are mainly sugars and starches and are one of the three principle types of nutrients used as energy sources by the body. Carbohydrates are made up of chains of sugar molecules. Even carbs that don’t seem to be sugary—such as bread, bagels, and pasta—are made up of sugar molecules.
Carbs supply energy to every cell in your body by turning the carbohydrate into glucose (sugar). The body uses as much glucose as it needs for immediate fuel; the unused portion is converted to glycogen and stored in your liver and muscle cells. If there is any glucose left over, it is turned to fat. If you need a quick charge of energy for, say, catching a bus, escaping from a burning building, or any kind of emergency situation, the body will release stores of glycogen. If you need energy for a longer period of time, such as playing a nine-inning baseball game or taking a long hike on a mountain trail, the body turns to fat for fuel.
One of the problems we have in the modern age is that many of us seem to be in a constant state of stress. Whether it’s a job, a relationship, being part of the “sandwich generation,” or having too many demands on us and too little time (which all women can relate to), our adrenals are working overtime. This leads to a constant state of excess cortisol production, which stimulates glucose production. This excess glucose ends up as stored fat in the body.
When adrenaline runs through our body, it signals cells to release fat for energy. But when there is too much adrenaline (due to the constant stress), the cells become unresponsive to these signals. At the same time, the high levels of cortisol are producing increased fat storage, which leads to obesity, which leads insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, and fatigue.
But too much stress isn’t the only factor that can lead to these hormonal imbalances. Another contributing factor is the overconsumption of simple carbohydrates. When you eat a sweet snack and gulp down a soda, for example, you’re loading your body with sugar, which triggers an influx of insulin to prevent excess blood sugar. This influx of insulin can in turn cause a dramatic drop in blood sugar a few hours later, your energy runs out, and you experience that sugar crash. The body, sensing a problem with low blood and reduced energy, produces a surge of adrenal stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol and a vicious cycle begins.
Contrary to some popular diet plans, we need to include some carbohydrates in our daily fare. We can live without carbs, but not well. What you need to know is that not all carbs are bad for you, and eliminating one entire food group is not the best thing you can do for your body. Carbs provide us with fiber, antioxidants, and brain fuel, and they raise serotonin levels (which makes us feel less depressed and more energized). On the other hand, they do raise insulin levels. Too much insulin and your blood sugar level plummets, dragging your energy down with it. You also have to concern yourself with developing diabetes from too much sugar.
Fruits and vegetables are among the best sources of carbohydrates you can eat. Try to include fruits that are rich in natural antioxidants (chemical substances that help protect against cell damage) and vitamin C. Blueberries and strawberries, for instance, are rich in antioxidants and they have anti-inflammatory and blood-thinning effects as well.
All fruits and vegetables are good for you, whether they are fresh, frozen, dried, or canned (when choosing canned fruit, look for labels that say “no sugar added”). They can be eaten raw, steamed, roasted, boiled, sautéed, microwaved, or stir-fried. The best idea is to have a variety of different types of fruit and vegetables from all the different color groups (yellow, green, and red).
Eva Cwynar, M.D., is a practicing Endocrinologist, Metabolic Medicine Specialist, and Internist in Beverly Hills, CA. Dr. Cwynar provides medical care that includes state-of-the-art testing for fatigue, metabolism, weight loss, and antiaging. She has appeared on such shows as The Doctors, Dr. Phil, Celebrity Fit Club, The Rachel Zoe Project, On-Air with Ryan Seacrest, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!