With Halloween right around the corner, many of us are thinking about decorations, costumes and social gatherings. This is a great time of year to celebrate the fall and harvest season with friends and family.
Inevitably, Halloween candy is tied to the holiday as well, whether through trick-or-treat activities, or the communal offering of sweets at parties and events. So how do you decide when to indulge, or when to pass on those favorite snacks? This might be a good time of year to review some basic nutritional information about carbohydrates (or sugars), the primary ingredient in most of these seasonal goodies.
It seems like everyone these days is ”counting carbs” or ”counting calories.” So, just what is a carb? What is a calorie? There seems to be a new recommended diet every week guaranteed to make you lose weight, live longer, build muscle and more, and many of these programs are backed by sound scientific principles. Others may not be as helpful or safe, but how do you know what to believe?
A carb (or carbohydrate) is basically sugars, whether complex (long strings of sugars called starch or polysaccharides) or simple (such as table sugar or sucrose; fruit sugar or fructose; or blood sugar or glucose). All of these molecules are important for metabolism, especially in the brain where they provide fuel for neural activity (literally food for thought) and in muscle where they provide energy for physical activity throughout the day.
Carbohydrates are nutritionally a good source of energy providing about four calories per gram, compared to protein that provides four to five calories/gram and fats that provide nine calories/gram.
But what does that mean really? It turns out, calories are a measure of energy. Specifically, one calorie is the energy needed to raise one milliliter of water by one degree Celsius. In the English system, this works out to 4.1868 Joules – not a very convenient unit for most nutritional purposes.
So, when you talk about calorie counting, what is really happening is determining the amount of fuel needed to burn for your human machine. The average adult will have a resting metabolism around 1,800 calories per day, just to maintain body temperature and keep the lights on. Just like at home, the thermostat usually drives the largest part of the power bill. If you take in more than this without exercising you are in surplus, and this is stored for later as fat. If you take in less you have a deficit, and fat stores are burned for energy instead.
An astute reader that has gone this far may have noted that carbs are actually less calorie dense than protein or fat. So why do so many diets focus on restricting carbs? Partially because most carb food sources – especially highly processed foods – do not contain a significant source of essential trace vitamins and nutrients.
A notable exception to this is fresh fruits. Further, processed carbohydrates tend to be absorbed much more easily in the gut, increasing sudden surges in sugar levels in the body. This can lead to increased insulin release, and that ”carb coma” some people experience after large meals. As you might have guessed, over time this can increase the risk of diabetes in conjunction with obesity and decreased physical activity.
Does this mean no candy, doctor? Not necessarily. Our bodies and brains need some carbohydrates to survive, and function better when a balanced diet is presented. Moderation is the key, not complete self-denial. Even ”keto” diets still include a small amount of carbohydrates for essential processes.
The problem is that the sweets we crave are much more readily available in modern society, and it is left to the individual to regulate appetite. So, enjoy the holiday and the delicacies that accompany it. Like most things, it is excess that causes problems.