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Which Carbohydrates do we need? And why do we need them?

Updated on July 26, 2008

Which Carbohydrates Do We Need? (And why do we need them?)

In a recent Harper's Bazaar article entitled "Get A better Body in Two Weeks", I found the following caveat: "Never cut out carbohydrates completely... If you don't have a sustained energy source, your body will burn muscle for energy." (Harper's Bazaar, August 2008, page 104).

Is that true? Will our bodies burn muscle if we don't eat carbs? I've been seeing that statement, worded somewhat differently each time, in a lot of different places. It's meant to motivate people to avoid cutting out complex carbohydrates from their diet. While we do need to eat some carbs, I think the idea that we would burn muscle if we didn't is misleading.

If we don't have any other energy source, our body will burn muscle. But that happens to people who are starving. Most people in the United States who go on a low carb diet are not starving. The problem is usually that they are too well fed, and they want to get rid of excess body fat.

Fat stored in our bodies represents excess energy that we don't need at the moment, but upon which we can draw, should we need it. Our bodies store fat as a way to ensure that we don't starve if the bountiful food we have available today suddenly disappears tomorrow. Like the fat cows and the lean cows in Pharoah's dream, and the grain storage program that they inspired, our body stores fat as an emergency supply of energy against leaner times. In a famine, people with excess body fat survive. People who have none die. Before they die, their bodies consume muscle for energy.

The low carb diet is helpful for those of us living in this affluent society, where even when the economy is bad, there is still plenty for all to eat. When a very low percentage of our caloric intake consists of carbohydrates, the body resorts to burning fat in order to supply us with energy.

So, do we need to consume carbs? Yes, but not for the energy. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, and, of course, the calories they supply us with do come in the form of carbohydrates. But the reason it is good for us to eat fresh produce is not its caloric value. Fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, fiber and water, all of which we need in order to keep our bodies healthy.

Vegetables in particular are a poor source of energy, in that they contain relatively few calories per volume, but the other nutrients they provide are well worth the trouble.

So eat plenty of fruits and vegetables for the minerals and vitamins, the fiber and the water. But if you are trying to reduce body fat, then stick to protein and fat for the majority of your caloric intake. Fresh produce is a good source of healthy carbs, but it's not in order to avoid starving that we enjoy these foods. They serve other, equally essential functions.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

In Defense of Food b y MIchael Pollan


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    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Clar, thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree.

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      clar 8 years ago

      If you don't eat carbohydrates, then the body uses fat as energy.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Katie, before resorting to muscle tissue, the body will burn fat. If you have no body fat, (or even very little of it), then eating carbohydrates is a good idea. If there is fat to burn, it will be burned first. Our entire body runs on sugar, but you can turn fat into sugar and sugar into fat, depending on the current needs of the body.

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      Katie 8 years ago

      Acutally, your body will burn muscle for energy if you don't eat carbohydrates. The reason being, your brain and central nervous system can only run off of carbs. It can't run off of fat without 1. Raising the acidity of your blood. and 2. USING YOUR LEAN MUSCLE TISSUE AS A SOURCE OF ENERGY.

      You, my friend, are another one of the uneducated people contributing to the VERY unhealthy 'no carb' craze. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

      I've published a new hub that deals with the issue of fructose as poison:

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Dear Nets, thank you for your incisive comment.

      Limes are certainly a very good source of vitamin C. And yes, fructose, in high doses is very, very bad for us. However, in fruit that hasn't been processed, nature skimps and only gives us fructose in small, manageable quantities.

      Fruit contains a high percentage of water, and a small percentage of other nutrients. That is why the Chinese call it shui guo "water fruit".

      Read Michael Pollan's book IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, to learn of the danger of thinking in terms of nutrients, rather than foods. While fructose is bad, fruit is good.

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      Nets Katz 9 years ago

      I view this hub entry as highly irresponsible in that it perpetuates the myth that it is healthy to eat fruit. (By the way, you are making the same logical error as Harpers when you do this.)

      Fruit are laden with a highly poisonous substance aptly named Fructose. As your article indicates one should not eat fruit for the Fructose.

      It is of course true that we need Vitamins. In fact vitamins are defined by the condition caused by their absence. For example, Vitamin C, (aptly named Ascorbic acid) is needed in order to avoid scurvy. The reason that sailors had such trouble with scurvy is that they went for long stretches without access to Vitamin C. The British royal navy famously solved this problem by providing their sailors with limes. This is how the British became aptly known as the Limeys.

      Moral: If you must eat fruit, eat limes. They're quite low in carbohydrate.