Choosing the Right Carbohydrates

Small Changes, Big Results Series

Part III:  Good Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the main source energy for the body, but, as with fats, there are good and bad choices. In his book, The Ultramind Solution, Dr. Mark Hyman says that “carbohydrates are the single most important food for long term health.  Carbohydrates found in their natural form contain many essential nutrients and specialized chemicals that keep you healthy.” Since carbs are so important to our health, it is important to understand which carbohydrate choices are healthiest for us and our children.

Best Carbohydrates — Complex Carbs

Carbohydrates are important to our health by providing energy for our bodies and helping protein (in the form of tryptophan) enter the brain cells. The best carbohydrates for us and our children are called complex carbohydrates. These carbs digest slowly, enter the bloodstream gradually, and create a gentler rise in blood sugar. Whole grains, legumes, and vegetables are examples of complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates provide a stable supply of energy for our bodies. They slowly break down and release sources of sugar and prevent surges of blood sugar and insulin. The slowly released carbohydrates from whole, unprocessed plant-based foods also keep our serotonin levels balanced. Serotonin improves feelings of well-being, hopefulness, organization, and concentration. Low amounts of complex carbohydrates affect brain function, making you feel foggy- or light-headed. You also may have a hard time concentrating  and feel sad or depressed. Complex carbs contain all the vitamins and minerals, with the exception of Vitamin B, that are needed for our bodies to operate normally and optimally.

Bad Carbohydrates — Refined Sugars

Sugar and white flour are two of the worst carbohydrates. They are a type of simple carbohydrates called refined carbohydrates or refined sugars.  Refined carbohydrates are highly processed sugars which are easily digested and therefore are absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly.  They rapidly raise blood sugar levels (which is associated with memory problems). Refined sugar robs our bodies of B vitamins and nutrients needed to support a stable nervous system and blood sugar balance, thereby affecting our health, moods, attention, memory, and behavior.  Examples of refined carbohydrates are soda, white bread,  white rice, and candy.

Not all simple carbohydrates are considered bad.  Some simple sugars occur naturally in healthier food options, such as fruits and dairy.  In these more nutritious simple carbs, the natural sugars are digested along with the natural fiber and nutrients of the food, which slows the absorption of the sugar into the bloodstream. In contrast, refined sugars have little to no nutrients or fiber to slow sugar absorption.

Why Making Good Carb Choices is Important

Maintaining consistent blood sugar levels allows the brain to get the steady flow of sugar (glucose) needed to keep it fit and functioning. Spikes and fluctuations in blood sugar cause sugar overload, which can cause an individual to have very high, sometimes excessive energy, followed by low energy, sleepiness, or moodiness.  William Duffy (REFINED SUGAR: The Sweetest Poison of All) writes, “Excessive sugar has a strong mal-effect on the functioning of the brain. Too much sugar makes one sleepy; our ability to calculate and remember is lost.” This is definitely not a good prescription for learning!

What To Do About Kids Who Crave CarbohydratesHealthy Carbohydrates

Instead of getting rid of carbs, simply choose more of the right ones. Replace refined carbs with complex carbs, like whole grain cereals or bread, potatoes, corn, and beans. Substitute unhealthy simple carbs (refined sugars like soda and candy) with more nutritious ones, like fruits (apples, oranges, cherries, and grapefruits) and dairy (milk and low-fat yogurt).

Remember, it is about balance. The brain needs good fats, healthy carbs, and protein to function optimally. Teach your kids how to make wise choices. This will leave them feeling healthy, energetic, and empowered.

How is your year going so far? Have you been making any of these small changes in your diet? Next time, we are going to talk about the impact of movement on attention and learning.


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