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All you need to know about Carbohydrates

It is easy to get lost in the discussion about carbohydrates. On the one hand, we hear about cutting carbohydrates. People want to eliminate them to lose weight. On the other hand, some athletes appear to be increasing the number of carbohydrates they consume. 

The truth about carbohydrates may be just as dizzying. Carbohydrates are one of several macronutrients we require to stay healthy. Yet, eating too many carbohydrates can present us with problems. 

Perhaps it is the types of carbohydrates that make the difference. We are all well-aware of the fact that much of the food we eat in the modern world is not all that healthy. And some carbohydrates do not provide us with the nutrition we need. Or, what amounts to the same things, some sources of carbohydrates bring so much that is unhealthy that these other ingredients offset the benefits of the carbohydrates.

This guide will give you the facts about carbohydrates. What are carbohydrates? What types of carbohydrates are best? And what do we get from carbohydrates? 

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are complex molecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They include sugars, starches, and fibers found in things like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Although carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in recent years, they are one of the primary macronutrients we require for proper health, and we need to consume carbohydrates in our diet. 

Carbohydrates provide the main sources of energy for the proper functioning of the body. The body converts carbohydrates into chemicals like glycogen which fuel all other functions in the body. 

As a macronutrient, our bodies do not synthesize carbohydrates. We need to get them from dietary sources. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates, however much we may malign them, are critical to good health. 

Types of Carbohydrates

There are three main categories of carbohydrates. These include:

Sugars

Sugars are the sweet short-chain carbohydrates commonly found in foods. These include glucose, fructose, sucrose, etc. 

Starches

These are long-chained carbohydrates that are broken down in the body into their component sugars.

Fiber

The human metabolism cannot break down fibers. Some parts of certain types of fibers can be broken down, but the bulk of fiber serves to provide food for intestinal bacteria. Proper intestinal health depends on regular fiber intake.  

Most carbohydrates are eventually converted into glucose as a fuel source for the body. Some carbohydrates are stored for later use.  

Simple and Complex Carbs

The key to healthy carbohydrates is to make sure you are eating the right type of carbohydrates. Carbs exist in two forms. Simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Sometimes these are referred to as whole and refined carbohydrates. 

Simple and complex carbohydrates are processed by the body in different ways, and the health benefits are not the same for each type. Simple, or whole, carbohydrates are found naturally in food sources. Most of these types of carbohydrates contain some amount of fiber. Complex carbohydrates are found in processed foods, have little fiber, and little to no nutritional benefit.

Simple or whole carbohydrates include:

  • Vegetables
  • Quinoa
  • Barley
  • Legumes
  • Potatoes
  • Whole grains

Complex or refined carbohydrates include:

  • Drinks sweetened with refined sugar
  • White bread
  • Pastries and sweets
  • Anything made with white flour

Complex carbohydrates are associated with numerous health problems. Things like obesity and type 2 diabetes are linked to the consumption of complex carbohydrates. 

One clear problem with complex carbohydrates is that they tend to cause spikes in blood sugar levels which leads to a crash in blood sugar. This inevitably causes food cravings. Any benefit in terms of short-term satisfaction you may derive from complex carbohydrates is offset by the food cravings that ultimately lead to weight gain. 

This seesaw effect that comes with complex carbohydrates is why they are often called empty calories. These calories provide no lasting benefit and lead to an increase in calories that are simply stored in the form of fat. 

All this said carbohydrates are not all bad. Health sources of simple carbohydrates are great for your health. You simply need to be mindful of the kinds of carbohydrates you consume. Simple carbohydrates provide you with the fuel you need to be healthy and most contain healthy levels of dietary fiber. 

The research shows that a diet that includes healthy simple carbohydrates like fruits, legumes, and whole grains that contain dietary fiber are linked to improved metabolic health and a reduced risk of heart disease

Sources of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be obtained from many sources. Some of these are better than others, and there is a time to indulge in what we might call bad carbohydrates. 

The best sources of carbohydrates include:

The worst sources of carbohydrates include:

  • Candy
  • White bread
  • Sugary cereal
  • Sweetened juice
  • Bagels
  • Cakes
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Muffins
  • Flavored yogurts
  • Chips
  • Soda
  • Lemonade

As we said, there are times to indulge in bad carbohydrates. Eat these things in moderation, and you will not have any problems. The tendency to get most, if not all, of our carbohydrates from these unhealthy sources is one of the prime causes of obesity and other serious health problems. 

Carbohydrates and Diets

Diets and carbohydrates are where we encounter the confusion over carbs. Some diets insist you eat no carbohydrates. Then, some diets allow a seemingly unlimited amount of carbohydrates. These diets break down into two categories. 

High-carb diet

A high-carb diet is almost always part of a low-fat diet. The theory behind this kind of diet is that by reducing fats and increasing carb, the metabolic system learns to burn the fast without replacing them with dietary fats, and high-carbohydrate intake creates both a feeling of being full while providing enough energy to replace the fats. 

However, medical research has found that high-carb/low-fat diets do not work. High-carbohydrate diets increase insulin sensitivity and triglyceride levels in the blood. Both of these issues are associated with type 2 diabetes and heart disease which are also problems associated with obesity. What is more, a high-carb diet will ultimately lead to increases in stored glycogens which take the form of body fat. 

While a low-fat diet sounds correct on an intuitive level, it ultimately leads to the very problem you are trying to get over.  

High-carb diets are great for people who engage in endurance sports or high-intensity athletic training. These kinds of activities demand vast amounts of glycogens to sustain physical exertion. But as a method for losing weight, high-carb/low-fat diets are not effective. 

There are carb cycling diets that rigorously control periods in which you consume high carbohydrate foods. These are more complex than a simple high-carb diet and involved serious planning. 

Carb cycling involves periods in which you consume a high-carb diet and alternate this with a period of low or no carbohydrates. The idea is that you will alter your metabolism so that it can adjust to fewer carbs and less fat. Over time, your body will naturally shed weight and your metabolic rate will adjust to not store fat. 

Low-carb diet

These have been extremely popular in recent years. Both the Atkins diet and the ketogenic diet are predicated on low carbohydrate intake. The theory behind the low-carb diet is to reverse the processes detailed in the high-carb diet. 

Perhaps the best example is the ketogenic diet since this type of diet is built entirely around reducing carbohydrates. The theory behind a keto diet is by reducing or eliminating carbohydrates, you force your body into a state called ketosis in which your metabolism converts fatty acids into glycogens to produce energy. This effectively burns through all your fat stores and glycogen stores and you inevitably lose weight. Instead of fueling your body on carbs, you provide fuel by converting ketones into glucose and glycogens. 

It is crucial with the ketogenic diet that you maintain high levels of protein intake since these will replenish your ketones levels. 

Carbohydrates Side Effects

Strictly speaking, there are no side effects of carbohydrates. What we would call side effects are almost exclusively associated with bad or complex carbohydrates. Refines or complex carbohydrates provide no real nutritional value beyond a short-term boost in energy levels. This energy boost is completely negated by the sugar crash that comes after the rush. 

The overall effects of this rush and burn that comes with refined carbohydrates produce long-term and serious health problems. The side effects of complex carbohydrates include:

  • Rapidly digested. Rapidly digested foods cause a spike in the level of blood sugar (The spike triggers the pancreas to make more insulin, which is a hormone that makes the body store more fat.)
  • Processed foods. Natural ingredients have been removed or changed during the making (the 'processing') of the food. For example, to make white bread, the bran and germ from wheat grain need to be removed to make the white flour used to make white bread. Other processed food include cakes, cookies, and other bakery items made with white flour; white (processed) rice, and some cereals.
  • Increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Carbohydrates FAQs

What are carbohydrates? 

Carbohydrates are complex molecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They include sugars, starches, and fibers found in things like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Although carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in recent years, they are one of the primary macronutrients we require for proper health, and we need to consume carbohydrates in our diet. 

What are the types of carbohydrates? 

The three types of carbohydrates are sugars, starches, and fibers. 

What is the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates? 

Simple carbohydrates are those that occur in nature. Simple carbohydrates are found in healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, unprocessed whole wheat flour, and potatoes. Complex carbohydrates are often called processed carbohydrates. These are found in things like sugary drinks, sweets, and white flour. 

Which type of carbohydrate is the healthiest? 

Simple and natural carbohydrates are the best for your body. These types of carbohydrates provide energy for your entire metabolism and fiber to ensure healthy intestinal functions. 

Why are complex carbohydrates bad?

Complex carbohydrates provide only sugars and no nutritional content. They lead to a cycle of a sugar rush and sugar crash that upsets blood sugar levels and leads to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. 

How do I get the carbohydrates I need without endangering my health? 

Stick with simple and natural carbohydrates from whole foods, fruits, and vegetables.

What is the best carb diet to lose weight?

If you must focus on carbs in your diet, the best way to lose weight and keep it off is with a low-carb diet. High-carb/low-fat diets tend to lead to the problem of sugar highs and lows that resist losing weight. 

Conclusion

If we just follow the popular media regarding carbohydrates, we could get the impression that they are all bad. The buzz in recent years has been all about low-carb or no-carb. The truth is that we need carbohydrates. 

Carbohydrates are one of the main macronutrients necessary for proper health. The main source of energy for our entire body is derived primarily from carbohydrates. The key is to make certain you are eating the right carbohydrates. 

It is a fact that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Ideally, you would get all your carbohydrates from all-natural sources. Whole grains, natural sugars that are found in fresh fruits and vegetables, and even things like potatoes provide us with healthy simple carbohydrates. 

The complex carbohydrates found in things like soda and other sugary drinks, pastries, and white bread and flour are complex carbohydrates. These lead to health problems including obesity and type 2 diabetes. Since so many of the foods we eat these days are filled with processed ingredients, it can be difficult to avoid these processed carbohydrates. 

Stick with whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and simple starches and you will be much more likely to stay healthy, fit, and trim. 

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