It surprises many people to learn that carbohydrates are not essential nutrients. Read that line again; carbohydrates are not essential to human life. The human body has a minimum requirement for protein, certain fats and a number of vitamins and minerals, but there is no such minimum requirement for carbohydrate. If you totally remove carbohydrates from someone’s diet, they can still live a long and prosperous life.
Does this mean the best health comes from complete carbohydrate avoidance? No. Carbohydrates have a place in the diet, both from a health and performance perspective. But care should definitely be paid to avoid over-consuming carbohydrates.
From a health perspective, the primary carbohydrates in the human diet should be vegetables and fruit. Vegetables and fruit both contain health promoting compounds like antioxidants, fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals. These compounds do wonders for decreasing our susceptibility to disease. Likewise, certain high-fiber whole grains can contribute to improved digestive system functioning.
Carbohydrates are also the preferred fuel for muscles during intense physical activity. Therefore, during periods of intense physical activity as well as during physical growth, the high energy content of starchy carbohydrate foods (i.e. breads, rice, pasta, potato) is beneficial. Unfortunately, most people make the mistake of consuming high carbohydrate foods at far too great a frequency, leading to a number of health complications.
The human body requires a fairly constant level of blood sugar. Blood sugar that goes too high or too low can be fatal. In order to deal with elevations in blood sugar, the human body secretes the hormone, insulin. Insulin in instrumental in removing sugar from the blood stream and storing it in the tissues. As such, insulin is considered anabolic hormone, which means it promotes the formation of new tissue.
When blood sugar and insulin are spiked following exercise, the body is signaled to lay down new muscle tissue. This is a positive response. Unfortunately, chronically elevating insulin in the absence of physical activity significantly impairs health. Among the many problems associated with chronically high blood sugar levels and an overproduction of insulin are: type II diabetes, certain cancers, atherosclerosis, and heart disease just to name a few.
Chronic elevations in insulin are also problematic as insulin promotes the formation of new fat tissue. Not only do chronically high insulin levels promote new fat storage, but following every insulin surge, fat burning is suppressed for several hours. In fact, for anyone trying to lose body fat, opting for a diet high in starchy carbohydrates is generally a recipe for failure.
Although high carbohydrate foods carry the potential to be beneficial (post-exercise), they definitely carry significant health risks as well. A good rule of thumb is to reserve the bulk of your starchy carbohydrate intake for in-and-around your workouts, then consume vegetable-based carbohydrates the rest of the day.
In fact, the next time someone gives you fat loss advice that promotes on an insulin provoking diet high in non-essential, starchy carbohydrates, do yourself a favor and say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Your waistline and your health will thank you.