Carbohydrates… one day we love them, one day we are afraid of them and one day we are binging on them, so what is really the deal with carbohydrates??
What exactly is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates is an umbrella term that encompasses sugar, fruits, vegetables, fibers, and legumes. Carbohydrates are one of the main macronutrients (along with proteins and fats) that are found in foods and drinks that are essentially a sugar molecule. Your body breaks down carbohydrate into glucose, which is the main source of energy for your body’s cells, tissues and organs (making it a pretty important player in overall health).
There are three main types of carbohydrate, sugars, starches and fiber. Carbohydrates can vary depending on how long their sugar chain is. For example, complex carbs or “good carbs” (which is not a real scientific term) have longer sugar chains, while simple “bad” carbs have shorter sugar chains. Sugar that we find in most candy, dessert and processed foods generally are simply carbohydrates, however, we also find sugar naturally in fruits, milk and even vegetables.
Simple carbs contain one or two sugars (monosaccharides or disaccharides) and are easily and readily used for energy. They can often be deemed as “bad” because they can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels and insulin secretion from the pancreases, however, they are not inherently bad.
Monosaccharides, which are the most basic carbohydrate include glucose, galactose and fructose. Disaccharides (which are sugar compounds containing 2 Monosaccharides) include sucrose and lactose. As more and more chains are added we start having oligosaccharide and polysaccharides. Examples of simple carbs would include fructose (found both naturally in fruit/veggies as well as processed foods), sucrose, glucose and ribose.
Oligosaccharides or polysaccharides are complex or “good carbs” because they have a more complex chemical structure and generally can take longer to digest and have a more gradual effect on increasing blood sugar (I can see why they would be the fan favorite).
Starches (which are considered complex carbs) are made up of lots of sugar chains strung together and you can find these starches in certain vegetables like corn, peas and potatoes.
Fiber is also considered to be a complex carb, in fact maybe the most complex, as your body cannot fully break down most fibers. This is why fiber has many health benefits including increased satiety and benefits to the gut microbiome. Diets high in these complex carbs from fiber can support cardiovascular health, blood glucose levels and GI issues such as constipation.
Carbohydrates can be sneaky in the fact that they are found in many things, such as the obvious breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, cookies, alcohol (most things that bring us joy), as well as fruits, rice, dairy products (including milk and yogurt), veggies, juices and legumes.
Carbohydrates are necessary for a variety of functions in the body including mood support, cravings, energy production, thyroid health and even muscle recovery.
Research has found that the composition of carbohydrates from whole foods (like sweet potatoes, rolled oats, beans, quinoa etc.) can increase availability of the serotonin in your brain.
Carbohydrates are also an important source of fiber and other a variety of minerals and vitamins such as B, C and A, potassium and magnesium. Diets high in fiber reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.
Sugars and starches found in carbs actually provide glucose, which is the main energy source for the brain, central nervous system and red blood cells.
As with anything when it comes to health, moderation and balance are key and consumption of carbohydrates are no different!
By Brianna Diorio, M.S., FDN-P