Carbs - Friend or Foe?

Think carbs are evil? Think again.

By Willow Lawson, published December 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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 nutrition.

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 old age.

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 that.

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.