By Willow Lawson, published on December 1, 2002 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
These days, it might seem like carbohydrates are your body's enemy.
Popular diets shun them. Some beer companies even advertise the amount of
carbs in each bottle.
But the reality is that your body -- especially your brain --
requires carbohydrates to operate. Although your muscles can store
energy, or even burn fat when there's no other fuel around, your brain
cannot do either. It depends solely on carbohydrates. And it's important
to know that all carbohydrates aren't equal when it comes to
First of all, carbs come in two forms: simple and complex. Simple
sugars are the ones that can be quickly absorbed into the blood stream --
think of the quick fix many of us reach for in the form of candy or soda
These foods usually contain white sugar or corn syrup -- both simple
sugars. Simple carbohydrates are also found in natural foods, such as
honey, molasses, maple syrup, fruit and milk.
Although simple sugars give you a quick burst of energy, the peak
is usually followed by a steep drop. That's because your body reacts to
the flood of sugar by releasing insulin, a hormone that clears the extra
sugar out of your blood.
Insulin has other effects on the body. It promotes the storage of
calories as fat and prevents the burning of fat. It is also responsible
for the sluggish sensation right after a sugar high. There is increasing
evidence that insulin also directly promotes changes in arteries that
lead to cardiovascular disease.
Although spurts of sugar might help you study for an exam or keep
your brain sharp when you're working late, subjecting your body to
see-sawing sugar highs and lows can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is associated with depression and a decline in mental agility in
Which brings us to the other carbohydrate, the complex
carbohydrate, the one you shouldn't shun, no matter which diet you're on.
We get most of our complex carbs from grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes
and potatoes. These foods--especially whole grains--are digested at more
leisurely rate and result in a steadier level of fuel released to the
blood. These foods are also packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals,
which also make them a better choice than candy. But you probably knew
But did you know that your brain cells never rest? A steady stream
of fuel is crucial for a healthy brain because its cells are always busy,
even when you are sleeping. Neurons are constantly repairing and
rebuilding, as well as connecting themselves to other neurons. The
bioelectric signals sent through the nervous system are also
energy-intensive. Brain cells need fuel at twice the rate of other body
cells; they consume about 10 percent of the entire body's energy.
Reducing vicious blood sugar swings benefits your brain and your
body. If you choose the carbohydrates that will slowly release energy,
you'll have a steadier attention span and a healthier body.