Carbohydrates and Weight Loss
Carbohydrates can be found in many different foods, from pasta to fresh fruit. We use carbohydrates for energy, but some types of carbs are better for us than others, and many people eat more poor quality carbohydrates than is healthy.
Managing your carbohydrate intake and choosing healthier carbohydrate options are useful habits for weight loss because they help your body use energy more efficiently and reduce the buildup of fat.
How Do Carbohydrates Work?
When we eat carbohydrates, our bodies convert them into glucose, a sugar that we burn for energy. When the pancreas detects glucose in the bloodstream, it releases a hormone called insulin, which allows the cells to take in glucose and use it as fuel. But this process plays out differently depending on the type of carbohydrate we eat.
Simple Carbs and the Carbohydrate Wave
Simple carbohydrates like foods that contain refined sugars and grains take only a short time to digest. Glucose hits our bloodstream quickly, providing a surge of energy. The pancreas releases insulin to keep blood glucose levels from rising too high, which can cause blood sugar to drop quickly, especially if we have a lot of belly fat.
This results in the brain telling us to eat something else sweet or starchy to bring blood glucose levels back up again, a phenomenon called riding the carbohydrate wave. As we continue eating more simple carbohydrates to keep ourselves satisfied, we can overeat and continue to gain weight.
Fructose vs. Glucose
In recent years, a substance called high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become much more common in our diets. HFCS contains high levels of a sugar called fructose, which our bodies process differently than glucose.
When we eat more glucose than we need for energy, we transfer it to the liver for storage as glycogen, a healthy form of energy. But fructose is instead converted into fat and stored in the liver and fat cells. As fat cells grow larger, they can release chemicals that cause inflammation and inhibit signals to the brain that tell us we’re full.
“We eat more fructose, load our fat cells more, and get hungrier,” says Dr. Wendy Scinta, an obesity specialist. “The process continues in a vicious cycle.”
Because HFCS is in so many different foods, we’re eating more fructose than ever before, and this has contributed to the spread of obesity.
“You can see such a correlation between when the obesity epidemic took off and when high fructose corn syrup became such a huge part of our diet,” Dr. Scinta says.
Choosing Carbs Wisely
Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables can have a much healthier effect than simple carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup. Because complex carbohydrates contain more chemical bonds, they take longer for our bodies to break down.
Glucose from complex carbs is released slowly and our bodies have more time to use it. Complex carbohydrates usually contain fiber, which slows down glucose absorption and keep our stomachs satisfied for longer. Because of the extra work that goes into preparing these foods, like peeling fruit and chopping vegetables, they are often also not as easy to overeat as simple carbs.
If you’re trying to lose weight, it will help to replace simple carbs and products that contain HFCS with complex carbohydrate foods. By getting rid of simple, processed carbs like white bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and processed sweets and replacing them with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, you’ll help your body take in and use energy in a healthier way.