This article covers everything you need to know about carbohydrates, including:
- What carbohydrates are
- Why carbohydrates are important
- Types of carbohydrates
- Good carbs vs. bad carbs
- How many carbohydrates you need
- Best sources of carbs
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the 3 macronutrients, along with protein and fat. They are considered macro nutrients because the body needs to intake large amounts of them – larger amounts than micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the body’s primary energy source.
Carbs (aka sugars) are broken down in the body into the smallest units of sugar, which are known as monosaccharides. A saccharide is the simplest form of energy, which is easily and rapidly used before any other energy source.
Carbs provide 4 kilocalories (aka calories) of energy per gram.
Why Are Carbohydrates Important?
The primary function of carbs is to provide energy. Especially quick and easily accessible energy.
Certain types of carbs, such as fibrous carbs can also have many other important roles in the body.
Types of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates can be broken down into two categories: simple carbs and complex carbs.
The difference between these two categories of carbohydrates is the length of the carbohydrate molecule.
Also known as monosaccharides, disaccharides, or simple sugars, simple carbs are short-chain carbohydrate molecules.
These include sugars like the monosaccharides: glucose, fructose, and galactose, and the disaccharides: sucrose, maltose, and lactose.
Simple carbs are readily digested and absorbed into the blood stream.
Foods high in simple carbs include:
- some vegetables
- honey, maple syrup, other natural sweeteners
- refined/processed foods: table sugar, juice, pop, candy, manufactured desserts, other packaged foods
- refined cereals and grains
Also known as polysaccharides, complex sugars, starch, fibre, and fibrous carbs.
These are long-chain carbohydrate molecules made up of repeating units of monosaccharides.
Complex carbs are broken down into simple sugars when digested, so that they can be used by the body.
Foods containing mostly complex carbs include:
- whole grains
Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs
Which carbs are good or bad, and whether or not carbs as a whole are good or bad, is a subject of much debate.
Simple carbs are typically considered “bad carbs”, whereas complex carbs are typically considered “good carbs”.
The reason simple carbs are generally considered bad, is because they quickly enter the bloodstream, spiking blood sugar levels and consequently insulin levels. Prolonged high blood sugar and insulin levels are known to lead to health problems such as insulin resistance and diabetes.
Simple carbs are often found in high quantities in desserts, junk foods, processed foods, and other standard unhealthy foods. So yes, this generally holds up to the whole “bad carbs” rep.
However, they are also found naturally in large amounts in fruits and other whole foods. Fruits are still considered healthy food because they offer other health benefits such as essential vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fibre. Same thing with honey and other natural sources of simple carbs.
Refined carbs in junk foods hold true to their “bad carb” classification because they offer no further nutrients of nutritious value – merely empty calories.
On the other hand, fibrous complex carbs take longer to be broken down into simple sugars, and thus can help slow down metabolism and digestion.
Complex carbs don’t spike blood sugar and insulin levels in the same way that simple sugars do. Instead of giving you a spike of sugar and energy, complex carbs give you a slower-release of sugar and energy over a longer time period.
Fibre is also great for your gut and digestion. And foods high in fibre and starch are often also rich in vitamins and minerals.
If you’re going for carbs for energy, you’ll want starchy and fibrous carbs to slow down digestion and avoid blood sugar spikes.
If you’re going for carbs for sweetness, use this information to choose simple sugars that are healthier and natural and can offer other health benefits, instead of refined simple sugars that offer nothing except blood sugar and insulin spikes.
How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need?
It is recommended that 45-65% of total daily calories come from carbohydrates.
However, keep in mind that certain carbs are much healthier than others. Refined and nutrient-void carbs such as those found in refined sugar should really not be consumed at all since they provide nothing beneficial other than immediate energy.
Best Sources of Carbs
The healthiest sources of carbohydrates include many popular whole foods, such as:
- vegetables: leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, potatoes, squash, etc.
- fruits: bananas, apples, berries, citrus fruits, etc.
- whole grains: oats, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, whole wheat, etc.
- legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas, etc.
- dairy: milk, yogurt, etc.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary energy source. Simple carbs can enter the bloodstream rapidly, whereas complex fibrous and starchy carbs are metabolized slower. Healthy carbs include natural, whole food sources of both simple and complex carbs, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
I hope you enjoyed this article on carbohydrates. Stay tuned for next week where we’ll be discussing everything protein!