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Carbohydrates - Are They the Enemy?

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Carbohydrates have been getting a bad rap lately. They are what the body desires for fuel and what makes it run the most efficiently. Unfortunately, when improperly consumed, they can lower the body's metabolism and lead to the risk of either malnourishment or weight gain. Here is a quick rundown on what carbohydrates do, where you find them, and how to get the most out of their consumption.

Carbohydrates are a chemical compound of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Common forms are starches, sugars, cellulose, and gums. They are more readily used by the body for energy than fats and proteins. They can be classified as "simple" or "complex."

Fiber is mainly an indigestible complex carbohydrate that makes up plant cell walls.

Complex carbs are found in whole grains, vegetables, nuts, some fruits and legumes. Incidentally, alcohol breaks down in your body as simple sugar. Most of your carbohydrate consumption should come in the form of complex carbs. Sugar, the most common simple carbohydrate, should be avoided in most cases.

When you consume carbs, your digestive system converts them to blood sugar (also known as glucose), which is stored in your muscle cells and liver. Your brain operates with the help of glucose in your blood as energy. When your training is intense, glucose stored within your muscles provides most of the energy for muscle movement. But when your body has all the energy it needs to store for muscle movement, the remaining carbs are stored as fat! YES... FAT!

As you can see, the key is learning how to take in just enough carbohydrates and not too many. This can be tricky business.

An athlete that needs to perform at a high-intensity output will obviously need more carbohydrates than a couch potato. But even sedentary people need some carbs. Your body burns carbohydrates all the time. When it doesn't have them, it turns to stored body fat. Now, this may sound like a good thing (and usually is!), but you should not force your body to do this always. It is not efficient and you will never get a maximum performance out of your body - and remember, this includes brain activity! The process of using stored body fat for energy is called ketosis and can be dangerous over prolonged periods. However, it can also be trained to where your body gets efficient at using stored body fat for energy, and that means exercising on an empty stomach at moderate intensity, but not moderate in duration.

In general, recommends that your diet be close to 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates. There are various theories about this ratio, most notably the research of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Barry Sears of "The Zone." But at the same time, some people with extremely high activity levels can consume carbs with no body fat consequence. (Bicyclist Lance Armstrong consumes around 80% carbs during events like the Tour de France and his body fat stays at 3%!) Experiment and see what works for you. A good way to start would be to cut way down on carbs and then slowly start adding more until you find the perfect energy point for you - with few highs and lows, but also no sustained lows.

Once you figure out the amount of carbs your body processes well, you will be able to gauge your diet decisions so that you do not eat so many carbs that you store them as fat, but so few that you are not getting enough energy for brain function.

Gazpacho-Shrimp Salad
A high-protein, low-fat dish that's a healthy alternative at work or school.

1 cup uncooked whole-wheat couscous
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled
2 14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes with green pepper and onion
1 small cucumber, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt and ground black pepper

Prepare couscous according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, combine shrimp and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil. Once water boils (shrimp will be bright pink and cooked through; about 2 minutes), drain and plunge shrimp into ice water.

In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, cilantro and coriander. Mix well. Add shrimp and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer couscous to four plates and top with shrimp mixture.

Per 2-cups gazpacho with shrimp and 3/4 cup couscous serving: 348 calories, 5% fat (2 g), 64% carbs (56 g), 31% protein (27 g)

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