Complex carbohydrates provide the best source of calories and energy of any food. Contrary to popular myths, they are not high in fat. Most Americans need to increase their carbohydrate intake and they can do this through a vast array of foods.

Have you ever wondered what ancient peoples ate? Carbohydrates. These foods have noruished the vast majority of the world’s population for thousands of years. Seeds such as rice, wheat, corn, and beans and roots such as potatoes and cassava still provide the major source of calories for people around the world.

Only the wealthy have been able to afford large amounts of animal foods. The prosperous Western cultures, including the United States, have traditionally made meat main part of meals.

That focus is changing at last. Health experts say that Americans need to increase the amount of carbohydrates and decrease the fat in their diet. Health-conscious eaters are opting for more complex carbohydrates.


A Sweet Story

The story of carbohydrates starts with plants. By now, we all know that plants make carbohydrates by combining carbon, oxygen, and the sun’s energy in a process called photosynthesis. These green energy factories churn out stored energy in the form of sugars and starches. Only one animal food is a significant sources of carbohydrate–milk.

Carbohydrates are classified as sugars, starches, and fiber–from simple to complex. Sugars are simple carbohydrates, which can be divided into two groups: single sugars and double sugars.

Glucose (also called dextrose), fructose, and galactose are single sugars. Glucose is the most common sugar found in the leaves and stems of plants. Fructose is the sugar in fruit and honey. Galactose is found only in milk, as part of the double sugar lactose.

Two single sugars linked together make a double sugar. Sucrose or table sugar is a double sugar made from fructose and glucose.

Starch is a complex carbohydrate that serves as a time-release form of energy. It takes hundreds to thousands of single glucose units to make starch. Plants store starch in roots and seeds as a soruce of energy for the next generation of plants. This ongoing process often affects how foods taste. For example, young corn tastes sweet. It contains mostly single and double sugars. As the corn ages, the plant converts sugars to starches, causing older corn to tasty starchy.

Fruit is the exception: Fruits change starch into sugars as they ripen. For example, a green banana is 80 percent starch and 7 percent sugar. By the time it has become very ripe, it has 5 percent starch and 90 percent sugar.

Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate made up of glucose units.


Best Source of Energy

How does our body use sugars and starches? All sugars and starches are reduced to single sugars by digestive enzymes. Once the links between sugars are broken, the single sugar units of glucose, fructose, and galactose can be absorbed. Since only glucose can be used by cells for energy, fructose and galactose are changed by the liver into glucose. All carbohydrates from foods end up in the bloodstream as glucose. The glucose is then available to all the body’s cells to use as energy. Glucose not used as energy is put in long-term storage as fat or glycogen.

Our bodies maintain a small amount of stored glucose in the form of glycogen. These long, branched chains of glucose units are a form of readily available energy. Glycogen stores in the liver are used to keep the blood glucose levels normal. Glycogen in the muscles is used as fuel only for muscles during strenulous exercise.

Carbohydrates are important to anyone who participates in sports. Whether you’re in serous training or playing for fun, carbohydrates provide the fuel your muscles need to do their work. Muscle glycogen used in partice or competition must be replaced or your muscles will constantly feel tired. Researchers found that athletes who ate a high-protein/high-fat diet had not replenished their glycogen stores even after five days. The high-carbohydrate group completely replenished glycogen stores in two days. The study’s conclusions: Protein and fats don’t get stored as muscle fuel; carbohydrates are the best source of energy.

Bad Rep to Thumbs-up

For a long time carbohydrates have suffered from a bad reputation. People labeled them as fattening and blamed them for unwanted pounds. Some fad diets even eliminated carbohydrates altogether. Nutrition experts are still trying to set the record straight. Carbohydrates are not “fattening.” They provide only 4 calories per gram. Fat is more than twice that at 9 calories per gram. In fact, the “fattening” part of our diet is the fat. Studies have found that dietary fat is more likely to be stored as fat than the calories from carbohydrate and protein. It’s not the bread, potato, or macaroni that adds extra pounds; it’s the butter, sour cream, or cheese that’s on top.

At 45 percent carbohydrate, 37 percent fat, and 18 percent protein, the current American diet still has room for improvement. We need to readjust our eating pattern to 55 percent to 60 percent carbohydrate, less than 30 percent fat, and 10 percent to 15 percent protein. The Food Guide Pyramid was designed to help us reach this goal.

With breads and cereals as the base of the Food Guide Pyramid and fruits and vegetables on the next level, it’s clear that carbohydrate-rich foods should be the basis of our meals. These three food groups are also mrich sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Boost your intake of carbs by rethinking your menu. Trying building your meal around beans, rice, potatoes, or paasta, with added fruts and vegetables. A piece of lean meat, poultry, or fish (the size of a deck of cards) is all that’s needed for one meal.

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