Within the hour, you start to feel sluggish and notice a haze of mental fog roll in. You thought this meal would be energizing! Why is eating a fresh homemade meal not enough? The answer may lie on your plate in the form of carbohydrates.
Certain carbohydrates have an effect on the body that has been nicknamed a “carb coma.” This is the tired, low-energy feeling you experience after eating a carb-heavy meal. There are many theories behind why this phenomenon occurs: carbohydrate insensitivity, blood sugar issues and more. The common thread of all these theories lies in carbohydrate digestion . We will explore the potential causes of carb coma and how to beat its draining effects. If this seems like a struggle you have experienced, please continue reading to learn more.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, more commonly known as “carbs,” often get a bad reputation. This is because they are a misrepresented macronutrient. When most people think of carbs, their mind is filled with images of potatoes, white pastas or sugar – foods that are low in nutrients and associated with weight gain if overconsumed.1 In reality, not all carbs have this negative impact.
Carbohydrates are actually the primary energy source for our body and an important macronutrient for sustaining health and wellbeing.2
Let’s start with the basics. What are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are compounds found in food that consists of hydrogen and oxygen molecules bonded to a carbon molecule. There are three different types of carbohydrates: starch, cellulose (a.k.a. fiber) and sugar. Sugar is considered a simple carb, while starch and cellulose are complex carbs. Foods that contain carbs include fruits, cereals, breads, pastas and a variety of other foods, both healthy and unhealthy. Fruits provide you with cellulose and sugar, potatoes provide you with starch, juices and white breads provide you with sugar alone.2
Whether you are eating whole grain bread, white pasta or a salad, all carbohydrates are broken down into a sugar called glucose . The difference lies in how quickly that resulting glucose enters your bloodstream. Unlike other macronutrients, carbs are the only one that create a rise in blood glucose levels. Carbs that create a slow, steady release of glucose are known as low-glycemic index foods. Carbs that cause a sharp spike and then a crash in glucose level are known as high-glycemic index foods. These different reactions occur because of the structure difference between complex and simple carbs. Due to the structure differences, the digestion process required to be broken down into glucose is slower for complex carbs and faster for simple carbs.3
Simple carbohydrates include white bread and pasta, pastries and other highly processed foods. While complex carbs include whole grain breads, whole grain pastas, whole fruit, old fashioned oats and other whole or less processed foods. Simple carbs have high glycemic index, while complex carbs are typically low-glycemic index foods. Simple carbs have been linked not only to excess weight gain but also to fatigue.3 These carbohydrates quickly digest into glucose, but the body does not fully use all the released glucose. Excess glucose is stored in the form of glycogen in the muscles, which dramatically decreases blood glucose.4
Common Digestive Problems
In addition to the effects of simple carbohydrates, many Americans may experience fatigue due to sensitivity to carbs that contain gluten. Gluten sensitivity has been linked with mental fog, fatigue, digestive issues and headaches. A person with gluten sensitivity lacks enzymes naturally produced by the body that help to break down gluten proteins. This can be problematic, because undigested gluten protein can cause problems that can decrease one’s quality of life.5
These effects can be mitigated by eliminating gluten from the diet. Apart from eliminating gluten , supplementing your diet with digestive enzymes can help. There are plant-based enzymes similar in function to the enzymes that are deficient in persons with gluten sensitivity. These enzymes can be found in supplements like Enzymedica’s GlutenEase ™.
- Make a switch: Swap your “bad” carbs for “good” carbs. Replacing or supplementing simple carbs with more complex carbs can help slow down digestion. Slower digestion creates a steady release of glucose into the bloodstream. This will help you to avoid a sharp blood sugar spike and drop. Making a simple replacement to whole wheat pasta from white pasta would be a beneficial and energizing switch.2
- Supplement your diet: If you are sensitive to gluten, carbs like bread and pasta, whether simple or complex, may cause fatigue. This effect is due to incomplete digestion of gluten proteins found in those foods. Supplementing your diet with plant-based enzymes can help support your body’s natural process of digestion. 5
- Skip the after-meal show: After eating simple carbs, the body experiences a post meal crash when unused glucose is removed from the blood and stored as glycogen. To avoid this, it is best to choose to get active after a meal rather than veg out and watch a show. This allows your body to fully utilize the rapidly released glucose.3,4
- Eat a balanced meal: Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that impacts blood glucose levels. Try eating a balanced meal – with fats, proteins, simple and complex carbs – to avoid sharp increases in blood glucose. Eating a balanced meal will help slow down the digestion of simple carbs. This can be achieved by adding vegetables and a lean protein to a meal high in simple carbs. 4,5
To sum up, there are two classifications of carbs: simple and complex. Simple carbs are digested quickly, creating a sharp increase in blood glucose. During inactivity after a meal, this unused glucose is stored away in the muscles in the form of glycogen. This storage process results in a sharp decrease in blood glucose, which can lead to feelings of fatigue after a meal high in simple carbs. Feelings of fatigue after a meal may also be due to when eating wheat-based carbohydrates like breads and pastas. It helps to choose complex carbs, take enzyme supplements, get active and eat balanced meals.You know your body better than anyone else. If you notice signs of carb coma, find solutions that work best for you. Before eating your delicious turkey pasta and freshly baked rolls, try taking Enzymedica’s GlutenEase™ supplement. Make a swap to whole grain pasta and rolls. Add fresh vegetables as a side dish. Or simply get out for a brisk walk after a meal. Test each option out separately and stick with the those that work best for you.Citations
- Mozaffarian, Dariush, et al. "Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men." New England Journal of Medicine 364.25 (2011): 2392-2404. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1014296.
- “Carbohydrates.” The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 21 Mar. 2017, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/.
- Pharr, Jennifer R. "Carbohydrate Consumption And Fatigue: A Review." Nevada Journal of Public Health 7.1 (2010): 6. APA. https://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=njph.
- Burke, LOUISE M., GREG R. Collier, and Mark Hargreaves. "Muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise: effect of the glycemic index of carbohydrate feedings." Journal of Applied Physiology 75.2 (1993): 1019-1023. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.19188.8.131.529.
- Fasano, Alessio, et al. "Nonceliac gluten sensitivity." Gastroenterology 148.6 (2015): 1195-1204. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2014.12.049. Accessed 30 January 2018.