By Teemu Virtanen
The Yuletide is still on, and we happily enjoy the holiday break in its full splendor. Christmas usually means eating well, and often consuming food that we don’t normally have in our daily dietary intake. For example, the consumption of chocolate and candy grows exponentially during the holidays. Carbohydrates are naturally associated with this time of the year, but what are those vital, but often shunned, chemicals.
Carbohydrates improve athletic performance by delaying fatigue and allowing an athlete to compete at higher levels for longer. Carbohydrates provide fuel for the central nervous system and energy for working muscles. They also prevent protein from being used as an energy source and enable fat metabolism.
The recommended daily amount (RDA) of carbs for adults is 135 grams, but everyone should have his or her own carbohydrate goal. Carb intake for most people should be between 45% and 65% of total calories. One gram of carbohydrates equals about 4 calories, so a diet of 1,800 calories per day would equal about 202 grams on the low end and 292 grams of carbs on the high end.
Carbohydrates are classified as simple or complex. The difference between the two forms is the chemical structure and how quickly the sugar is absorbed and digested. Generally speaking, simple carbs are digested and absorbed more quickly and easily than complex carbs. Simple carbs can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and sugar highs, while complex carbs provide more sustained energy.
Simple carbohydrates contain just one or two sugars, such as fructose (found in fruits) and galactose (found in milk products). These single sugars are called monosaccharides. Carbs with two sugars — such as sucrose (table sugar), lactose (from dairy) and maltose (found in beer and some vegetables) — are called disaccharides. Simple carbs are also in candy, soda and syrups. However, these foods are made with processed and refined sugars and do not have vitamins, minerals or fiber. They are called "empty calories" and can lead to weight gain.
Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) have three or more sugars. They are often referred to as starchy foods and include beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, potatoes, corn, parsnips, whole-grain breads and cereals.
In the body, carbs break down into smaller units of sugar, such as glucose and fructose. The small intestine absorbs these smaller units, which then enter the bloodstream and travel to the liver. The liver converts all of these sugars into glucose, which is carried through the bloodstream — accompanied by insulin — and converted into energy for basic body functioning and physical activity.
If the glucose is not immediately needed for energy, the body can store up to 2,000 calories of it in the liver and skeletal muscles in the form of glycogen. Once glycogen stores are full, carbs are stored as fat. If you have insufficient carbohydrate intake or stores, the body will consume protein for fuel.
Good carbs are:
- Low or moderate in calories
- High in nutrients
- Devoid of refined sugars and refined grains
- High in naturally occurring fiber
- Low in sodium
- Low in saturated fat
- Very low in, or devoid of, cholesterol and trans fats