Carbohydrates (or “carbs” as these macro nutrients are affectionally called) are substances that are broken down in our bodies and absorbed as simple sugars. Sugar itself has gotten a bad rap – but it’s the most simple (and quickly absorbed) form of carbohydrate.

Our body uses sugars for energy and stores them in muscle and fat cells for future use.

If we overeat ANYTHING it can be stored in our body as fat. Our bodies are quite efficient at storing excess carbohydrates and fats that we ingest for future use.

Simple sugars/carbs are quickly digested in our gastrointestinal system (gut, GI system, intestines) which produces an insulin spike.

Insulin is a hormone that escorts our food particles into cells to be processed. When we eat, our insulin increases and we feel full, when it decreases as we finish digesting, we feel hungry again.

Complex carbs take time for the body to break them down and digest them. This is why whole food sources with other substances like fiber take longer to digest and the absorption of the “sugar” molecules is spread out more versus the quick absorption (aka sugar rush) we get from simple or processed carbs (sugar itself, candy, heavily processed foods, sugary drinks, etc).

The brain also sends chemical signals (I like to think of them as “happiness” signals) – such as dopamine, that elicit a pleasure response in our brains. This reinforces the brain to say “that was yummy, I want more of that”. This creates a desire for more of the same food to get that “hit” of dopamine again.

This helps to explain why we can easily consider ourselves “addicted” to sugary foods or carbs in general. This is not addiction but it is the brain’s desire to continue pleasure seeking. Our primitive brains are great at creating that feedback loop to give it more of what it wants (more pleasure, no pain).

Carbs are great for providing energy for our bodies, especially in times of exercise and our brains need glucose (sugar) to survive and function. There is no “right” amount of carbohydrates that are best for everyone. Carbs sources are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and legumes. Higher fiber sources allow for slower digestion, as mentioned above. More simple or processed sources will create a faster response as they are absorbed.

What matters most in nutrition is the amount, type, sensitivity and timing of this nutrient.

Or, to put it another way, what can carbs do for you?

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