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  • Monique Vuong, MS, RD

LET'S TALK ABOUT THAT C-WORD.


The most divisive macronutrient of the moment! Look around and there are so many fad diets that promote some form of highly restrictive carbohydrate regimen thrown into the mix. While carbs can send some running in the other direction, I'm here to tell you that you may want to reconsider your perspective.

Carbohydrates are not the enemy, and not all carbs are equal - source and quality certainly matter. In fact, eliminating them may be counterproductive to your health goals without you realizing it. I've broken down this topic into two parts. In this post, I will provide you with some points to consider in terms of its role in general health. In my second post, I will focus on the role of carbs and exercise/performance. Who knows? Maybe by the end of these posts, you'll be singing its praises. I know I do ;)

So here goes....

1) GUT MICROBIOME

The gut microbiome is gaining lots of attention in the nutrition world. What we know now is that about 70% of your immune system lies in your gut, and that maintaining gut health is essential for general well-being. Within your gut reside bacteria that work to maintain its integrity.

If you keep up on the latest nutrition news, you have probably heard of probiotics (and the oh so delicious kombucha - I cannot get enough of that fizzy drink!). Probiotics are filled with good strains of bacteria that fight the harmful bacteria, and deliver specific health benefits depending on the strain. In order for these bacteria to thrive, they need prebiotics. Prebiotics serve as food for bacteria and come in the form of FIBER. And what is the primary source of fiber in foods? CARBOHYDRATES, specifically complex carbohydrates (whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes). Without fiber in your diet, that expensive probiotic you’re taking goes down the drain!

2) HEART HEALTH

Fiber-rich carbohydrates are also known to prevent fat absorption by “trapping" and making them inaccessible to bile (a cholesterol-rich substance made by the body that helps with digestion/absorption of fat). At the same time, fiber helps you to excrete these bile acids that subsequently need to be replenished. The liver ends up drawing cholesterol from its existing cholesterol pool to make more. Reducing your cholesterol pool results in a lowering of LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. So you absorb less fat AND excrete cholesterol? Sounds like a double win to me!

Note: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that we get anywhere between 25-30 g/day from dietary sources. And the average American is not getting enough of it (only ~15 g/day)!

3) MENTAL HEALTH

We're always talking about the role of serotonin in mental health. The more serotonin you have, the better you will feel as it is an important regulator of mood and happiness. And guess what? Carbs help with the production of serotonin. How, you ask? Let's get a little bit into the science.

For serotonin to be made requires two things: 1) the presence of its precursor tryptophan and 2) the ability for tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier, where serotonin is produced. Tryptophan is one of 20 amino acids (aka building blocks of protein). Every time you eat protein, your body breaks it down into any of the 20 amino acids. These amino acids are in competition to cross the blood brain barrier. Carbohydrates help to remove some of the “competition” by way of insulin. (Note: Only carbohydrates influence production of insulin.) The presence of insulin allows for the uptake of the amino acids into different cells in the body, with the exception of tryptophan (because tryptophan binds to albumin, a protein in the blood which keeps it in the bloodstream). This leaves more “room” for tryptophan to cross the BBB and be converted into serotonin.

And there you go! Eating carbs not only makes your gut happy, but provides physical and mental health benefits too. Now I bet you're wondering about carbs and exercise/performance. Read on to my next post for more =)


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