Understanding carbohydrates role
Eating plans for people with diabetes, elevated triglycerides or heart disease will call for a diet reducing carbohydrate intake. Cutting out carbs is also the mantra of so many weight loss programs like keto and Whole 30 but before carbohydrates get painted as this menacing villain in our diet, it is important to note, they also serve a key role in our body. According to Shore Medical Center Registered Dietitian, Mackenzie McCune, “There are actually 3 main macronutrients in our diet: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.” Macronutrients are the nutritive component of food the body needs for energy and to maintain the body’s structure and systems.
“Carbohydrates are required for calorie metabolism, meaning carbs are necessary for breaking down calories and fats in our body after we eat them,” said McCune. “Carbs are also required for detoxification so the liver is able to do its job to detoxify our body because of carbs. Protein mainly helps repair and build the body’s tissue. Fats are the structural building blocks in the body and carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy.”
Aside from helping the liver cleanse and detoxify the body, McCune said carbohydrates aid nerve tissue and red blood cells function. “Carbs support brain function, as well as support our gastrointestinal system and microbiome. They spare the body's protein. If we do not have enough carbs stored, the body will instead use amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to make glucose. Finally and I believe most importantly, carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen and that is the body's preferred source of fuel. It is what gives us energy and maintains it throughout the day,” said McCune.
Like a car sputtering when it needs gas, our body gives us a clear message that it needs to fuel up but can our body also be hooked on carbs? McCune said “I would not say we are hooked on carbs, it is more like our body might crave carbs if we have not eaten all day or if we deprive ourselves of carbohydrate food sources. This is how our body lets us know that it needs fuel.”
That carb craving can lead to a type of withdrawal if we abruptly remove carbs from our diet, said McCune. “Our body needs a consistent amount of carbohydrates spread evenly throughout the day to function properly. Cutting out carbs or eating a very low carb diet may result in extreme fatigue and a decrease in the ability to focus,” added McCune.
Do we need carbs?
Supplying energy to the body is key, according to McCune. “Keto is one of the most recent fad diets which aims to use fat as energy instead of relying on carbs. When done properly, yes we can use fat as an energy source but it is not recommended by most health professionals unless you have the guidance of a registered dietitian or you need to follow a high fat and low or no carbohydrate diet because of another health issue.”
Lowering the amount and kind of carbohydrates we eat as a means to lowering triglycerides and blood pressure is important as well. When we eat too many carbohydrates our blood sugar level can get too high. This will trigger our body to make more insulin and could trigger hypoglycemia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We need the carbs for energy but there is a limit. “Too much of anything can be bad for our bodies,” said McCune. “We need carbohydrates and fat in our diet but when consumed in excess can lead to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes.”
McCune said when helping patients to plan meals she is not typically limiting carbohydrate intake. “What I find mostly is patients are not timing meals correctly and they often need to understand portion size. Incorporating portion control is key to regulating the carbohydrate intake.”
While carbohydrates function to boost the body’s energy level, removing them can leave the body zapped. “Energy level is always taken into consideration when creating a meal plan,” said McCune. “But a couple of factors can also be affecting a patient's energy level such as how much they are eating throughout the day, the amount of sleep they are getting and the level of stress they may have.”
That crashing feeling that can sometimes be resolved rather effectively, according to McCune. “Typically if a patient has a low energy feeling with a new diet or meal plan, then they are not getting enough calories throughout their day,” said McCune. “It is surprising how many patients I actually advise to eat more.”
The first step would be to work on the timing of meals. McCune said, “Being consistent everyday with meal timing helps speed up your metabolism and provides your body with energy consistently throughout the day.” Depending upon the daily routine of the patient, a typical day would start with breakfast at 8am, lunch at noon, a snack at 3 pm, dinner at 6 pm, and a snack at 7:30-8 pm. Avoid late night snacking that could add unnecessary calories and interfere with sleep and staying properly hydrated throughout the day with water is also a step in the right direction.
Understanding what we eat and when we eat and the impact those factors have in our overall diet is important.