Thanks to low-carb diet fads, carbohydrates seem to have a bad reputation. Part of the reason why carbs are on the hot seat is because your body stores them as excess fats in your tissues. Don't swear off carbs just yet -- if you eat the right amounts, your body stores them as energy for your next intense workout session. When you strike the right balance, you can meet your nutritional needs without tipping the scales.
Carbohydrate is a blanket term for foods that can be further broken down into sugars. They're not just present in breads or baked goods -- you also can find carbs in fruits and veggies. When you eat a carbohydrate-containing food, your body can use it for immediate energy, for short-term storage or for longer-term storage as body fat. In terms of immediate energy, your body turns carbohydrates into glucose or blood sugar. Your cells gobble up this energy to perform their needed functions and keep you from feeling lethargic and unable to concentrate.
If your body's cells have all the energy they need, your body moves on to "Plan B" for carbohydrate storage -- storing the extra carbohydrates as glycogen. This compound resides in your liver and muscle tissue. Think of glycogen as the backup generator for your body's energy. If you run out of glucose, your body can free up the glycogen to keep you going full-steam ahead. Your body will likely dip into its stores if you have been exercising for an extended period of time or haven't been able to eat in a while.
Fatty acid conversion is where carbohydrates can turn ugly. If your body has all the glucose and glycogen it needs, it turns the carbohydrates into fatty acids. These are stored as body fat, which can be dangerous to your health if you have excess. Fatty acid storage is why you should watch your carbohydrate intake. "The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook" recommends getting about 50 to 55 percent of your daily total calories from carbohydrate sources. One gram of carbohydrate is equivalent to about 4 calories, so you can do the math based on how many calories you eat in a day. If you eat a 2,000-calorie diet, this is about 1,000 to 1,100 calories or 250 to 275 grams of carbohydrate per day.
Your body breaks down carbohydrates at different rates, which means some types are more likely to get stored as fats than others. Simple carbohydrates can be broken down very quickly and include refined grains such as white bread, white rice and white flour. Dairy products such as milk, cheese, ice cream and yogurt also can contain simple carbohydrates. Eating foods with these simple carb sources increases your risk for obesity and diabetes. Instead, opt for complex carbohydrates, which are broken down more slowly and include whole-wheat products, beans and root vegetables such as potatoes. Choosing these sources can help reduce the likelihood that the foods you eat will be stored as fat in your body.
Rachel Nall began writing in 2003. She is a former managing editor for custom health publications, including physician journals. She has written for The Associated Press and "Jezebel," "Charleston," "Chatter" and "Reach" magazines. Nall is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Tennessee.