Carbohydrates are a staple of a well-balanced diet, as they provide fuel to the body and mind. Carbohydrates--along with proteins and fats--keep the body operating at an optimum level when they are eaten in moderation. In order to achieve this level, an individual must understand what a carbohydrate is and how it functions in the body.
Carbohydrates are sugars that are broken down in the body. These sugars are either complex carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates, depending upon the food's main ingredients and how long the body takes to digest these ingredients.
Carbohydrates provide the body with energy. The amount of "energy" the body receives is based upon how many calories, or units of energy, the body takes in. Carbohydrates contain approximately four calories per gram, meaning that each gram provides the body with four units of energy.
Being that carbohydrates are used as energy, the body can use them in many different ways. It can burn off carbohydrates through exercises or other daily physical activities. It can also use the energy to fuel the body's organs, including the heart, muscles, liver and brain. If more carbohydrates are consumed than can be burned off, however, these stored carbohydrates turn to fat.
Because they typically lack nutrients, simple carbohydrates provide short bursts of energy that are quickly followed by a "crash." This crash occurs because simple sugars cause a person's blood sugar to spike, thereby providing the illusion that the body has properly fueled up and is ready to exert more energy. Simple carbohydrates are very easy and quick to break down, however, and once this happens blood sugar typically plummets lower than it was before it ingested the simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, can stabilize blood sugar because the process of digesting them is longer and more difficult.
Simple carbohydrates include any food that is mostly composed of sugar, including chocolate, cakes, candies, soda, honey, jams and jellies. Many fruits are also categorized as simple carbohydrates because they are naturally high in sugar. These include melons, oranges, berries, apples, grapefruits, kiwis, peaches, pears and plumbs. Complex carbohydrates include foods that are composed of starches and fiber, such as vegetables, beans, whole grains, rice and oatmeal.
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