Carbohydrates – are the basic elemental support of all living things. Consider Carbohydrates as your “high efficiency” fuel of the body that sustain a lot of your endurance needs. Besides plants as the exclusive source of carbohydrate-rich foods, milk is the only animal source that also contains a great amount of carbohydrates. In general, Carbohydrates also play a very important role in growth, development and maintenance (such as in organs, nerve cells and blood group). Whatever forms they come in, carbohydrates are converted in the body into energy currency called “glucose or blood sugar”.

How Carbohydrates Work? – There are several ways the body converts carbohydrates. First, the body converts enough carbohydrates into glucose to use for energy. Then some are stored in the muscles as glycogen. The rest is sent to the liver for storage, also as glycogen. The surplus is then transformed by the liver into fat to be deposited in fatty tissues around the body. Therefore, greater surplus of carbohydrate results in obesity. Overall, the body storage can hold a half day’s worth of energy in the form of glycogen that must be converted first back to glucose or blood sugar.

The blood system on the other hand, can only hold an hour’s supply of glucose. Therefore, hoarding up more than a half day’s storage of energy can end up in the fat storage. Likewise, piling up supply of glucose or blood sugar can be dangerous, especially in conditions where the body’s ability to utilize sugar efficiently is diminished or ineffective. This is mostly happening in cases of diabetes or glucose intolerance.

Why are carbohydrates important? Carbohydrates play a very important role in growth, development and maintenance (examples are organs, nerve cells, blood group). But most importantly, Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred and main energy source. Carbohydrates protect the muscles by sparing proteins and protecting fats from being deprived of their important functions (which will be discussed in its respective pages). When the body needs energy during physical activity, it will look for a carbohydrate source first. If none is available, it will turn to the stored muscle glycogen and break it down as glucose for energy.

In contrast, the human brain and the nervous system also need energy, and if that need is not met from a carbohydrate source, the body will break down liver glycogen to reproduce glucose for energy. This is what happens when you have a low carbohydrate diet. This is one of the many reasons why me and other RDNs don’t advocate ketogenic diet without proper supervision and advised from RDNs. The reason that Ketogenic diet is not a good way to provide the body with that main source of energy. It would seem like pumping diesel gasoline into your vehicle’s unleaded engine. Yes, the car can run for a few miles, but the engine will, at some point, quit working. In contrast, the body can go on for a while, but depriving it with the main energy source can affect the body’s overall performance or functions. As a reminder, the brain is the foremost important organ in the body that has the priority needs for glucose or blood sugar for energy. Depriving it from its main source of energy can have an adverse effect on the bodily functions.

When glucose is no longer available in the body, serious health problems can occur. This means that if glycogen is used up, the body will turn to fat and protein for help, thus depriving them from their important body functions. Fat alone can not remake enough glucose to give energy to the brain and the nervous system. In order to break down fat efficiently, carbohydrate still must be available to help. Without carbohydrate, fat, in an effort to break down its fragments to provide energy, produces excessive amounts of toxic byproducts called ketones. An accumulation of ketones in the blood is called ketosis, which can cause serious consequences, such as coma and even death. This is why severe carbohydrate deficit due to fasting and dieting on a low-carbohydrate diet becomes so dangerous.

Another case scenario is when the body turns to protein for help, it breaks down the muscle and other protein tissues to reproduce glucose for energy. Important organs, such as the heart and kidneys are made up of muscle tissues. If these tissues continue to be broken down, the result can be fatal. Therefore, carbohydrate intake is important so that glucose is readily available anytime. As many of us nutrition experts have said “there is no better substitute for carbohydrates.” That is because carbohydrates not only have the ability to provide efficient energy, but also spare (or save) protein and fat from being deprived of their important functions in the body.

Types of Carbohydrates:

Complex Carbohydrates – are found in fruits, vegetables, grains and grain products particularly wheat. They contain higher nutritional value because not only that they provide calories, they are also rich in vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. Complex carbohydrates are referred to as “good carbs” for being a good source of the body’s preferred source of energy. They are the brain and muscles fuel sources. They are they are the efficient sources of endurance energy and digested faster than fat and protein for efficient use.

Simple Carbohydrates – these are the simple sugars or table sugars and quickly broken down by the body for quick energy use. So, this is not the most efficient source of energy. Although simple carbohydrates also provide calories, however, these calories are of no nutritional value due to they lack vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber that are essential for normal body functions. This is why simple carbohydrates are referred to as “empty” calories and can lead to weight gain. Therefore, consuming too much of these can load up the calories leading to weight gain or obesity. These can easily adversely affect blood sugar control in diabetics.

Again as mentioned, too much of any of the macronutrient intakes can adversely affect your overall health.

Ofelia B. Mutia, MS.,RDN.,LD.