What Are Carbohydrates?
To really get to grips with what carbohydrates are, how they work, and what they can do for you, let’s first get some clarity on the different types that are out there.
Carbohydrates are categorised as either simple or complex. Simple carbs, such as glucose, are known as sugar, whereas more complex carbs like glycogen or cellulose are referred to as starch or fibre. In popular culture carbs are also described as being either good or bad. We’ll investigate that concept a little later….
Simple Carbohydrates (sugars)
- Broken down quickly by the body and easily digested
- Taste sweeter than complex carbs
- Monosaccharides and disaccharides (see below)
Complex Carbohydrates (starches)
- Take more time to be broken down and digested
- Often provide dietary fibre
- Polysaccharides (see below)
All carbs are made up of monosaccharides: single molecules of sugar.
Disaccharides consist of two sugar molecules linked together.
Polysaccharides are longer chains of more than 2 sugar groups.
What Do Carbohydrates Do?
Different types of carbohydrates are absorbed by the body at different rates. For example, monosaccharides can’t be broken down any further than they already are, so they are absorbed by the body very soon after ingestion. Disaccharides take a little longer, and polysaccharides take longer still, depending on their complexity.
Still with me? Let’s carry on…
How Carbohydrates Work Inside The Body
First, carbs of all types are digested into monosaccharides in the stomach and intestines;
Once fully broken down, they’re absorbed through the intestines and transported to the liver to fill its energy reserves;
From there, the remaining monosaccharides are transported to the rest of the body via the bloodstream.
What Are Good And Bad Carbs?
No carbs are inherently healthy or unhealthy, rather we can make more appropriate choices by understanding our bodies’ constantly changing needs for energy and nutrients.
To establish what’s optimal, it’s important that we understand the difference between nutritious and non-nutritious carbs, and also how our bodies respond when we eat different types of carbs...
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Some sources of carbs provide more micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) than others. Natural foods such as fresh vegetables will provide you with far more micronutrients per calorie. Processed foods such as baked goods and confectionery provide many more calories with far fewer nutrients and fibre.
Ideally you want your diet to consist of mostly nutrient-dense carbs, with some room for less nutrient-dense, but enjoyable foods such as sweets. Whilst it’s essential we give our physical bodies what they need, we can’t neglect the mental, emotional and spiritual effects food has on us. Even if a particular food isn’t rich in nutrients, it can still add value to your health providing you don’t eat too much of it.
Where your food comes from is important, too. For example, plants grown and farmed in the best conditions will usually have the most nutrients. The way we farm and treat the animals & plants we eat affects us directly, and so opting for higher quality products is good for our health as well as the environment.
Some examples of nutrient-dense carbohydrates:
- Herbs & spices
- Beans & legumes
- Whole grains eg quinoa
The Glycemic Index
Have you ever felt very sleepy and sluggish after a meal? The glycemic index (GI) can explain why. It's a useful framework that was invented to help up understand how different types of carbohydrate affect us when we eat them.
Once broken down in our gut, carbs enter the bloodstream and our blood glucose increases. The higher the rise in glucose, the more insulin our body produces in response. Insulin is a hormone that transports glucose from the bloodstream into our cells.
The glycemic index ranks food based on its blood glucose response. Simple sources of carbs like sweets and cereals enter the bloodstream quickly, and so lots of insulin is produced by the body. These types of carbs are said to have a high GI.
Complex sources of carbs enter the bloodstream more slowly and so we see lower amounts of insulin secreted by the body. These types of carbs are considered to have a low or medium GI.
People on high sugar diets sometimes can’t produce enough insulin to transport the glucose to our cells, so the glucose remains in the bloodstream. Over time this can cause issues associated with type 2 onset diabetes.
Low & medium GI foods are generally a preferable option. These are usually complex, high-fibre carbs such as vegetables, legumes like chickpeas, and whole grains such as rice.
How Many Carbs Do I Need?
The exact amount and types of carbs you need depends on a number of variables including your body size, lifestyle, personal preferences and the activities for which you need fuel. For example, larger people will need more than smaller people, and some people function better on slightly higher/lower carbs
For this reason I’d strongly recommend speaking to a reputable expert who can help you calculate your personal needs.
A good general guide to follow would be a minimum of 130g per day for the average person. It’s also essential you get enough fibre: roughly 35g per day for women, and 48g per day for men. Consuming enough fibre helps you feel satisfied for longer after eating, regulates the transport of food through your digestive system, and protects from diseases such as colon cancer. Fibre can be found in vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, and grains.