There are so many misconceptions about carbohydrates. Everywhere you look people are jumping on a low-carb diet, hoping to shed some stubborn pounds. The problem is that many of those people are grumpy––have you noticed that?
Let's get something straight––carbohydrates aren't inherently bad. Kind of like a troublesome toddler, they're simply misunderstood. Unless you stick fast to a keto diet, you want to include carbs in your diet. In this article we'll take a look at what carbohydrates are, why they're important for health, the different types, and how to make better choices.
What Is A Carbohydrate?
Although they're commonly maligned as the "bad guy" of the macro team in regard to diets, carbohydrates are an incredibly important part of nutrition. They're one of the three main ways our bodies get energy (the other two are fat and protein), and they're considered an essential nutrient because our bodies can't produce it. We have to get them from the food we eat.
Avoiding too scientific a definition, carbohydrates are the sugars and molecules that the body breaks down to make sugar. Different molecular structures give us either simple or complex carbohydrates, which are further broken down into sugars, starches, and fiber. Carbs are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products.
Complex Or Simple?
We like things to be simple, and that even extends to carbs! As we know, nothing in this world is either all good or all bad, and we're forced to reconcile conflicting evidence and find balance in all we do––and eat.
If that sounds a bit philosophical for a simple nutrition blog, trust us––it is! The reasons why we eat aren't as cut and dry as hunger or strength or wellness or even simple survival. Food is also a source of comfort, social connection, sensory stimulation, and appreciation of the natural world and our physical bodies. We notice the physical effects of too much or too little food, but we give its subtle influences much less attention.
That's why a little knowledge can help us better understand the food choices we make and guide more effective eating habits.
Whether carbs are simple or complex depends on their structure. Simple carbs are monosaccharides, including glucose, fructose, and galactose. These are the simplest forms because they're made up of just one molecule. Linked together, they become disaccharides, such as lactose, maltose, or sucrose.
Complex carbs are three or more simple sugars strung together. Those with 3-10 linked sugars are called oligosaccharides. More than 10 linked sugars are polysaccharides. During digestion, the body breaks down these complex carbs into monosaccharides, which become energy for your cells and cause a rise in blood sugar.
Both starch and fiber are polysaccharides. While they're derived from plants, they have a different molecular structure that affects how your body uses them. Starches, such as white bread and crackers, have a high glycemic index because they are digested quickly, releasing a lot of glucose into the bloodstream. However, when fiber is involved, such as through vegetables and whole grains, it slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
Sugar moves from the digestive system into the bloodstream and eventually gets transferred to the tissues where it's used for energy or stored as fat.
Quality Vs. Quantity
Too much of even a good thing can have unpleasant consequences. When it comes to carbohydrates, we can't kick them out altogether because they play an important role in our health. We can, however, make better choices that will help decrease the risk of developing diabetes, obesity, or insulin resistance (a condition in which your muscle, fat, and liver cells don't respond well to insulin and can't take glucose from your blood).
Fiber helps maintain optimal blood sugar levels, so it's a good move to include high-fiber foods in your diet and minimize the starches or simple sugars. Some of the healthiest sources of carbs include unprocessed whole grains, fruits, beans, and vegetables. Not only do they contain fiber, but they deliver a host of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Not-so-great sources of carbs include foods that are highly processed or refined. Things like white bread, pastry, potato chips, and soda are easily digested but they bombard the bloodstream with glucose. If glucose is not converted to energy, it sits as fat in the muscle and liver cells and can lead to weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes. And as luck might have it, such foods are also highly addictive, so once you're on the high-speed simple carb train, it's very hard to get off it and choose a safer, more effective form of nutrition.
What About Carbs From Fruit?
Carbs give us an instant mental boost, immediate energy for our muscles, and a storage of glycogen in the liver. Indeed, they are the first fuel for the brain and mitochondria. The stronger our physical activity is, the higher demand we have for carbohydrates. A highly active person will burn sugar more efficiently than a sedentary person. This is especially important to keep in mind when you're choosing non-vegetable carbohydrates that don't have a lot of fiber.
What does this have to do with fruit? Not only do our bodies require sugar, our pleasure receptors do too! Without sufficient sugar, we're prone to grumpiness and other unpleasant moods. That's where fruit becomes a true savior. It contains natural sugars, a mix of sucrose, fructose, and glucose, and it gives us the raw sweetness we crave while also delivering an abundance of essential micronutrients and fiber.
While "free sugars'' contain the same types of sugars as fruit, they've been extracted from their natural source and don't contain the nutrients that help the body process those sugars. These are the types of sugars to avoid.
Nature's Sacred Nectar
One of the best sources of sugar we can consume is honey, and it gives us that sweet fix too. It's calorie-dense and contains more enzymes than any food, which are essential for building muscle, destroying toxins, and maintaining optimal digestion. Honey also contains antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties that help support a strong immune system.
Raw, organic versions are best because heating can destroy enzymes. If you enjoy honey in your tea, wait for it to cool before adding it in.
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From our kitchen to yours, we wish you a healthy dose of sweetness in all your meals!