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What are carbohydrates?
How many carbs do we need?

Exactly what are carbohydrates, and why do so many people say bad things about them? Are carbs the cause of obesity, diabetes, and every other disease? Are they bad for us, or good for us?

Carbs for energy

Carbohydrates are simply one of the three sources of calories in our food. The other two are protein and fat. Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are called macronutrients.

You often hear people say that they need to eat more protein for energy. That is actually not correct. Protein is the nutrient that we use for the building and repair of tissues, not for energy. That is why marathon runners carbohydrate load before a race. They don't protein load, do they?

Carbs are the primary source of energy for our bodies. Our precious brain uses only carbs for fuel, and it burns a lot of them. What are carbohydrates? They are a clean-burning fuel that breaks down to carbon dioxide and water.

The body can burn protein for energy if it has to, but it much prefers carbohydrate and fat. When we don't get enough carbs our body will even break down our own muscle tissue and turn it into carbs to keep our "machinery" running. If we lose muscle tissue, we burn fewer calories every day. We want to keep our muscles.

There are two kinds of carbs:

  • Sugars, or simple carbs. They taste sweet. The common simple carbs in food are glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, lactose, and galactose. We call them simple sugars because a molecule of simple carbs contains just one or two sugar units.

  • Starches, or complex carbs. They don't taste sweet. Complex carbs are made of very long chains of sugars. Some of them have more than 3000 simple sugars attached together.

    Our digestive system breaks down all of the complex carbs into simple sugars and finally to glucose. The simple carbs break down faster than the complex carbs. They are all healthy if we eat them in whole plant foods.

Most dietary fiber is made of complex carbs too, but we can't digest it in our stomach or small intestine. We don't have the right enzymes to take the sugar chains apart, so they pass intact through to our colon.

Bad carbs, good carbs

There are some bad carbohydrates that are harmful to our health. Here is a description of bad carbs and how to identify them.

Every plant contains carbohydrates: lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, you name it. Plants also contain protein and fat, which is why we call them whole foods.

Some plants contain carbs that are a little more concentrated. These are the starchy foods like grains, beans, and root vegetables. Starches are an important source of calories for people all around the world. They are healthy foods and they are not fattening. People in Asia were slender until they cut back on rice and started eating more animal foods.

How many carbs do we need?

yams roasted blue bowlMany vegan doctors say that 70-80% of our calories should come from the carbs in whole plant foods. For optimal health, we need no more than 10-15% of our calories from fat and 10-15% from protein. 

Low carb diets are not healthy. Remember, all of our food calories come from fat, protein, and carbohydrate. If we cut back on carbs we automatically increase the percent of fat and protein in our diet. 

Extra fat causes obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Extra protein is linked with kidney failure, osteoporosis and other health problems. Flesh foods like beef, pork, poultry, and fish are nothing but fat and protein. They contain no carbohydrate or fiber. They lead to disease, not to health.

So, what are carbohydrates? They are weight loss foods! Studies show that a healthy high carbohydrate diet can help us lose weight. Don't fight your cravings for carbs. Eat sweet potatoes, potatoes, whole grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables. But read package labels and keep the bad carbs and added fats out of your diet.

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