What Are Carbohydrates?

Last Update: May 24, 2024

One of the most fundamental ways to maintain health and well-being is to understand nutrition and how it impacts your body. Unfortunately, when it comes to food, there’s a lot of misinformation or conflicting information available, and one of the most misunderstood factors still today revolves around carbohydrates.

Over the years, opinions on carbs have drastically changed—from the Atkins diet, which banned them altogether to the low-fat diet, which said load up as long as you take out fats—and these cultural trends have made it even harder for the average person to really understand the dynamics of a well-balanced meal.

When it comes to carbohydrates, they are an important part of overall nutrition, but there are pros and cons to them as well. As such, uncovering the truth about what carbs actually are and where they fit in is important.

The basics of carbohydrates

Put simply, carbohydrates are the sugars, fibers, and starches found in food. They’re primarily a component of fruits, vegetables, milk-based products, and grains. Often called “carbs” for short, carbohydrates draw their name from a unique chemical makeup of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen,

Along with protein and fats, they’re also one of the three macronutrients essential for proper functioning of all the body’s systems. The body can’t produce macronutrients on its own, so they must be ingested through diet, and the only way that you can get the needed levels of carbs each day is through what you eat.

Why carbs matter

Though carbohydrates have been plagued with a bad reputation in modern times, the fact is your body can’t function properly without them. They are a main source of energy and, as such, provide the fuel that your nervous system and muscles require to do their job.

As you eat carbohydrates, your body turns them into blood sugar. The body then uses that converted sugar to provide energy to the many organs, tissues, and cells at every level. Any additional sugars not needed at the time are stored in the liver or the muscles for use later.

Here are some of the primary ways that the fuel provided by carbs benefits the body:

  • It’s essential for proper brain function, and can impact your mood, memory, and ability to think quickly.
  • It helps prevent protein from being used for energy. If you desire improved physical fitness, you must ensure that carbs are where the body’s energy is coming from, while protein is reserved to support muscle growth and performance.
  • It enables better metabolism of fat in the body. In other words, instead of cutting carbs out to lose weight, eating the right carbs is a key way to promote better weight loss.

It’s important to understand that eliminating all carbs from your diet is never a good idea; however, there are good carbs and there are bad carbs, and the ratio of how they are consumed is essential.

The three main types of carbohydrates

As discussed, there are three main types of naturally occurring carbohydrates that you can choose to eat:

  • Fiber: This is a complex carbohydrate made from numerous sugar units that have bonded together at the chemical level. Fiber is present in large quantities in things like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Starch: Another complex carb that is found in grains, vegetables, and legumes.
  • Sugar: Naturally occurring in a variety of foods, and is present comes in several forms including fructose (fruits), sucrose (plants), and lactose (dairy). It’s a simple carbohydrate, unlike the other two forms of carbs, but when fiber is added in, such as with produce, it mimics the nutritional value of complex carbs.

A note on fiber

Dietary fiber plays a huge part in nutrition. It’s a good form of carbohydrates, but most people only get about half of what is actually recommended. Fiber contributes to better digestive health by cleaning out your gut and keeping you regular, and also helps reduce the amount that you eat since you will stay full longer after a meal. Fiber is actually why some simple carbs like fruit are still considered good for you.

Differences between simple and complex carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are classified based on whether or not they’re simple or complex in chemical structure.

Complex carbohydrates are those that contain several sugars bonded at the chemical level. They’re also called polysaccharides, meaning multiple sugars. They’re generally thought to be a more digestible form of carbs, and are therefore the more preferable type by dietitians. Examples include sweet potatoes and unprocessed brown rice.

Simple carbohydrates are called either monosaccharides or disaccharides, as they contain only one or two sugars bonded together. They’re generally regarded as less healthy, and are often just referred to as sugars. Your common candy bar or potato chips would be considered a simple carb.

While both of these types can deliver energy to the body, simple carbohydrates contain very little real nutritional value. They’re usually higher in sugar concentrations and lower in dietary fiber, which in turn means that you get little from them aside from a short burst of energy. The one exception to this is fruits and vegetables. Though simple carbs are present in produce, the difference here is that there are high levels of fiber, so their makeup is actually most similar to complex carbs because of the nutrients.

The glycemic index

The glycemic index is also important to note when choosing the best foods for you. This chart breaks down just how much of an impact a carbohydrate will have on blood sugar levels, assigning a numerical value to each type of food. The higher the number, the more effect it will have on raising blood sugar. For diabetics, this is incredibly important to know, but anyone can use the glycemic index as a guide to have a better understanding of how healthy a particular carb is.

Good carbs vs. bad carbs

As detailed above, carbs are classified based on their complexity. That complexity is what separates good carbohydrates from bad ones.

Good carbs are the ones known as “complex” because they have longer sugar chains. That means that the body takes more time to break them down, which in turn means that you have a more consistent source of energy throughout the day. There are no sudden rises and falls in your energy levels. Instead, you get solid energy and better brain and muscle performance. Some examples include oats, whole grain breads, beans, fruits, vegetables, and bran. Eating good carbs can benefit your body in numerous ways, including:

  • Easier weight management: Consuming foods with good carbs offers your body the nutritional value and energy you need. You’ll also feel much more satisfied after a meal of whole grains and vegetables than after consuming a bowl full of potato chips.
  • Healthy bowel movements: Fiber is a vital player in staying regular and keeping your large intestine as healthy as possible.
  • Heart health: Just as consuming bad carbs will increase cholesterol, it’s much easier to manage cholesterol levels on a diet of whole grains and good carbs.

Bad carbs, on the other hand, are considered “simple” and break down quickly. Examples include most desserts, breads not made from whole grains, sugary beverages, refined pastas, and processed snacks like potato chips.

The body’s digestive system makes short work of them, which means a higher glycemic load. Blood sugar levels can spike quickly, leaving you with high energy before quickly losing it and feeling drained or tired again. Here are other ways that bad carbs can negatively affect the body:

  • Weight gain: Eating these types of foods packs on the calories, which your body can’t really use since they offer little nutritional value. When you eat large amounts of bad carbs, greater amounts of insulin are also needed, which can in turn lead to insulin resistance and cause fat accumulation.
  • Bowel issues: Fiber is an excellent way to keep your large intestine healthy, but you’ll only find it in plant-based foods.
  • Nutrient deficiency: The food pyramid acts as an excellent reminder that the body won’t get much out of highly processed foods. Instead of sweets and refined carbs, the whole grain options, vegetables, and fruits make up the majority of what your body truly needs to operate.
  • Risk of diabetes: Many of the bad carb options are packed with sugar. Eating too many of them could cause your blood sugar levels to easily get out of control, especially if there is a family history of diabetes.
  • Risk of heart disease: Refined carbs also increase the triglyceride count, which is a type of fat circulating in your blood. Once this number gets too high, your risk of stroke and heart attack increases.

There’s nothing wrong with having simple carbs from time to time, but in order to get the best levels of nutrition it’s important to focus on the right carbs. Additionally, certain foods like white rice or baked potatoes are much better simple carbs than things like pies or cookies.

Planning out the proper carbohydrate course doesn’t have to be rocket science. Just using common sense, reviewing the glycemic index, and understanding what some of the best carbs for your body are will help you get a clear idea about how to fit good carbohydrates into your body.

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