basics of carbohydrates and fibre

Time for another “basics” posting. One of our three main nutrients is carbohydrates (also called carbs, or CHO for short). This post looks long but it’s all interesting, I promise! 🙂

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Carbohydrates, at their molecular chemistry level, are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. I like chemistry, so it helps for me to know this background. But if you don’t like chemistry, just understand that carbohydrates are molecules that our body needs. They consist of sugars, starches, and fibres.

Their most important job is to provide the body with energy! The brain relies almost exclusively on a supply of glucose (sugar) to keep it running smoothly. Our muscles rely on stored glucose (called glycogen) to be released when we are active or running. All our cells need glucose to survive. How do we get glucose? We eat it!

I’m sure everyone can name some infamous carb foods: bread, pasta, donuts, muffins, etc.

me and the world's largest donut
me and the world’s largest donut

But now that we know what the term carbohydrate means, we can now broaden this list to include fruits, vegetables and grains. And foods like nuts and seeds provide lots of fibre. So….altogether now: “Are all carbs bad?”…..”heck no!” 🙂

Ideally, we want to consume foods with a good balance of sugar to fibre. This would be things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains….basically anything in its natural packaging. Foods high in pure sugar though (i.e. baked goods, candies) break down quickly in our bodies and release sugar into our bloodstream quickly. This sets off a chain reaction involving many body systems. It is quite cool actually:
1. The pancreas notes that sugar is in the bloodstream, and secretes insulin to help the sugar get into the cells where it is used
2. The liver also notices that sugar is in the bloodstream, and takes some of the sugar and stores it as glycogen
3. The adrenal glands kick in as well if the food was extremely high in sugar. Insulin does it’s job so well with sugar that when all the sugar is in the cells, the adrenal glands think you are in a low-sugar state and start producing cortisol to help re-balance the sugar.

And hopefully you can see from here that if any of these systems fails to work properly, or if we eat too much pure sugar, we can start on a road to disglycemia, diabetes, or weight gain. This is why we should really be aware of our sugar intake and definitely try and limit our intake of “refined” sugary foods, i.e. products that are almost pure sugar. We want to balance the sugar out with fibre, protein, and fats.

a food Art Attack from my wonderful sister - nectarines, blueberries, turkey slices, and cheese...yum yum!
a food Art Attack from my wonderful sister – nectarines, blueberries, turkey slices, and cheese…yum yum!

Fibre plays many roles in our body. It can help balance blood sugars, reduce cholesterol, make us feel more full, and help promote bowel movements. You may have heard there are 2 types of fibre: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fibre is the kind of fibre you get from vegetables and wheat bran . Insoluble means that it does not absorb water, therefore it is great at providing bulk to your stool and helping you go to the bathroom. Soluble fibres, such as oat bran, chia seeds, or apple peels, absorb water and form a gel-like substance. Imagine this going through your digestive system – gel moves slowly and is sticky….
Moving slowly = slows down digestion, helping you feel full longer, and helping release sugar into your blood at a slower rate.
Sticky = it collects rogue cholesterol particles and other substances while it travels through your body, and eventually gets excreted.

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So…what have we learned today? Eat whole, delicious natural foods! Everything in nature is in the correct proportions for our bodies. Hope that gives you a brief awareness of carbohydrates and fibre and what they do in our bodies.

-Emily

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