Carbohydrates and why you need them

One of the most popular and recommended tips to shed body fat is to cut out, or at least lower, your carbohydrate intake. The guy or gal on the fitness magazine said so, thus, it must be true!

In reality, carbohydrates are given a bad rep for absolutely no reason. Carbs are in fact an essential part of a healthy diet, and (unless you have a medical reason that dictates otherwise) here are three reasons why you need to eat them.

 

Carbohydrates and why you need them

 

1. Carbs are fuel

Carbs are not just fuel, but are your body’s preferred and primary source of fuel. Your central nervous system (your brain and nerve tissues) rely on carbohydrates. And your brain itself requires approximately 100g of carbs every day1 to function optimally.


Essential brain functions such as working memory and learning are closely linked to how efficiently your body uses glucose2, which is the fuel our body obtains when we break down carbohydrates. Without enough glucose, these brain functions become compromised and neurones cannot fire optimally.

Besides our brain’s main fuel source, carbs are also our high octane fuel for exercise! Carbohydrates are broken down at much higher rates and much more efficiently then fat and, thus, our body relies on them for higher intensity exercise such as sports, weight lifting, bodyweight exercises, circuits, running, and much more. These carbs are stored in the muscles as glycogen, which is used as the energy source for muscular contractions.

When your body does not have enough stored glycogen when you want to perform these activities, it will start tearing down protein (i.e. your muscles) as protein is also broken down at much higher efficiencies then fat3. And protein breakdown is the last thing you want as this will ultimately lead to loss in strength and muscle mass!
So, if you're looking to optimise your brain function and your athletic performance, carbohydrates are your friend!

 

2. Carbs are not easily stored as fat

This is the one that will probably shock the majority of people reading this! Most people assume that carbohydrates are the evil culprit to all their weight gain. That is what has been advertised for years and is how most of the fad diets we know today were created. But when you take a look at the physiology, the results may surprise you.

Your body stores carbs as fat through a process called de novo lipogenesis; a very inefficient and difficult process. When you overeat on carbohydrates AND you are above your caloric requirements for the day, your body stores fat. However, it is not from those carbohydrate molecules turning into fat themselves.

Instead, your body preferentially burns those carbs whilst storing extra calories from fat (not carbs) in your adipose tissue. It is much easier for the body to store fat as fat then to convert carbs into fat. Your body does not need to burn much of that dietary fat and will therefore store it1.

An easier way to understand it is that your body will actually burn those extra carbohydrates, but would have no need to burn much of the fat you ingested throughout the day as energy due to the ample amount of available energy from carbohydrates. This is again because carbs are not easily converted into fat from a physiological standpoint.

Thus, your body will burn through those carbohydrates and store a lot of that fat simply because it is easier to store fat as fat. Even then, you would still have to of overeaten more calories then what your body needs in that day to even gain weight in the first place. Thus, it is much more accurate to say you are gaining weight because you are overeating rather than because you are eating carbohydrates.

 

3. Carbs are important for your health!

This is, at least to me, the most important reason to NOT cut carbohydrates from your diet. Carb sources like fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains offer a wide variety of essential nutrients to the body. These inlcude vitamins, minerals, and an immense source of phytonutrients that are pretty much absent in meats and fats. These are essential for your health, your longevity and your overall sense of wellbeing.


These essential micronutrients are found in rich concentrations in foods such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, fruit, vegetables, amaranth, quinoa, squash, beetroot... the list goes on. Your body uses these micronutrients as the building blocks for your cells to function optimally. Without them, illness is almost inevitable, and deficiencies are certain.


Your body needs these micronutrients to survive which is why you could probably eat a dozen donuts (nearly absent of any micronutrient value), but could not eat more than a few apples at any time. Your body is saturated with important nutrients with the latter and, thus, does not require much more food.


These important nutrients are the number one reason not to avoid carbs, and also the key reason why the quality of the carbohydrates you consume is incredibly important.


Thanks for reading!


Sources:
1) Burke, L., & Deakin, V. (n.d.). Clinical Sports Nutrition (5th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education (Australia).
2) http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/sugar-and-brain
3) Tiidus, P., Tupling, A.R., Houston, M. (2012). Biochemistry Primer for Exercise Science (4th ed.). Human Kinetics.