The science behind: Carbohydrates

You’ve probably been told to eat a healthy, balanced diet about 1,000 times in your life–maybe even in this year alone. There’s a good reason for this steady stream of advice. Our bodies need a large variety of nutrients to function, from proteins and vitamins to carbohydrates and fats.

Each nutrient serves a slightly different purpose in keeping our bodies healthy. For example, proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are building blocks our bodies then use to build our own proteins. Carbohydrates are important for providing and storing energy.

But when it comes to getting healthy or losing weight, people still turn towards restrictive diets.

Read on to learn why eating carbs will help you maintain a good health.

What are carbs?

Carbohydrates are found abundantly in nature, and we usually use them to provide and store energy in our bodies. Scientifically speaking, they are molecules made from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

Carbohydrates include the sugars and starches found in fruit, grains, and dairy products. Most carbohydrates are broken down in the digestive system into a simple sugar called glucose, and then absorbed through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream to provide fuel for the brain as well as energy for the muscles. You can learn much more about this in our carbohydrates simulation.

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Complex carbs don’t cause weight gain

A common misconception is that carbohydrates are the cause of weight gain, and that cutting carbohydrates out of your diet altogether will make you healthier. To understand why this school of thought is incorrect, you first should learn how our bodies interact with carbohydrates, and what actually causes fat gain. For a comprehensive understanding of what carbohydrates are and how we digest them from a scientific perspective, play the carbohydrates simulation. In the simulation, you can see a 3D animation of the process on a molecular level.

Our bodies are designed to store energy whenever possible in the form of glycogen. Whenever blood sugar is high, insulin gets to work packaging up all of that extra energy as glycogen to be used later. Any sudden spike in blood sugar triggers a spike in insulin, and ultimately leads to gaining fat cells. The key word there is sudden; a slower increase in blood sugar won’t activate insulin and therefore does not result in energy storage as fat.

Simple vs. complex carbs

All carbohydrates (with the notable exception of fibers) are absorbed through the intestinal wall into bloodstream as sugar, causing blood sugar levels to increase. The type of carbohydrate determines whether the spike in blood sugar is sudden or prolonged.

Simple carbohydrates are found in sugary sweets like ice cream and cookies, flour-based products like bread and pasta, fruit, and milk products. The sugar and white flour in those products breaks down into glucose in one quick step in the digestive system. A fast breakdown means that a lot of glucose is absorbed through the intestine and into the bloodstream all at once, causing a sudden spike in blood sugar. That spike triggers insulin to start storing the extra energy as glycogen in fat cells, which we see as fat gain.

What happens when blood sugar stays high, and insulin is activated too often? Play the diabetes simulation to find out.

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Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, provide the energy we need to keep our nervous system and muscles functioning without adding any fat. This is because complex carbohydrates, which are found in whole grains like quinoa and starchy foods like corn and potatoes, take much longer to break down into glucose in the digestive tract. A longer breakdown means a much slower rate of absorption into the bloodstream. A prolonged absorption means that there is no blood sugar spike, which means that insulin is never activated, and therefore there is no storage of energy in fat cells.

Eat carbs! Just not simple ones.

Sugary foods, including foods made with white flour like pasta and bread, are what we tend to crave most. Unfortunately, those simple carbohydrates tend to be the cause of weight gain, and have little to no nutritional value.

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are full of vitamins and minerals that are excellent nutrients for your body. On top of that, complex carbs can help with weight loss because you feel satisfied for longer due to the slow breakdown in the digestive tract.

So if you want to be healthy or even lose weight, eat carbs! Just eat the right ones.

For the science behind building muscle and reducing stress, check out our 3-step health guide.