All About Carbohydrates
Carbohydrate, or “carbs”, have a bad rap. For years they have been demonized, we’ve been told to limit them in our diets, and they’ve been labeled as the enemy. As it turns out, they are not the demons they have been made out to be, and learning about the various types carbohydrates and how to incorporate them into our diet is important for our health.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel. In the body, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar) to be used as a source of energy to help fuel our day, as a source of energy for our brains, and a source of energy for muscle function. Much like a car runs on gas, our bodies run primarily on carbohydrates. When consumed, carbohydrates are broken down by our digestive system into gas (glucose) and stored in our body’s gas tanks (liver and muscles). When consumed in appropriate amounts, carbohydrate help to adequately fuel our gas tank. However, when carbohydrates are consumed in excess, we have the potential overflow our gas tanks which can lead to high blood sugar, weight gain, fatigue and many other issues.
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients, along with protein and fat, and they are made up of sugar, starch, and fiber. In fact, any food composed of sugar, starch or fibre is considered a carbohydrate, and this includes everything from fruits and vegetables, to potatoes and grains. Structurally speaking, carbohydrates can be broken down into two separate categories; simple and complex. Put simply, complex carbohydrates are more complex than simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are those composed of two or more sugar molecules, while simple carbohydrates are composed of two or less sugar molecules. All carbohydrates, regardless of the form in which we consume them, be it potato or white sugar, are digested into simple sugars before being absorbed in our digestive tract. Complex carbohydrates are merely a more complex because they are made up of larger sugar molecules that take longer to be broken down in the digestive tract and therefore take longer to reach our blood stream. Simple sugars are already in their basic format (glucose) and therefore can be absorbed very quickly into the blood stream.
How carbohydrates react in the body is heavily dependent on their composition. Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, straches, and fibre, but it is the quantity of each within a food that determines how useful (or useless) they are in filling up or overflowing your gas tank. So how do we know which is which? Let’s take a deeper look at complex vs. simple carbohydrates.
Examples: Fruit, fruit juice, honey, maple syrup, dairy, white sugar
Simple carbohydrates only contain 1 or 2 sugar molecules. The simplest form of sugar is glucose, and the body’s primary source of energy, while other simple forms of sugar include fructose and galactose. When combined, these sugars can create other forms of simple carbohydrates such as sucrose (glucose + fructose) found in table sugar, or lactose (glucose + galactose) found in milk. Examples of natural forms of simple carbohydrates include fruit, honey and maple syrup. In addition to these natural simple carbohydrates, you can also find simple carbohydrates in refined forms such as pastries, candy, sweets, desserts or anything made with white sugar. Although these foods all contain simple carbohydrates, unlike natural versions, refined versions contain no vitamins or minerals, nor do they contain any fibre to slow down digestion, and therefore overflow our gas tanks much faster than natural simple carbohydrates.
Starchy Complex Carbohydrates
Examples: Potatoes, rice, grains, beans, lentils
Starchy carbohydrates are carbohydrates made up of long chains of sugars, and more starch than simple carbohydrates. Common sources of starchy complex carbohydrates include; oatmeal, potatoes, rice, grains, beans and lentils. Starchy complex carbohydrates eventually break down into glucose in the body, and can therefore serve as a good source of energy. Compared to simple carbohydrates, starchy carbohydrate take longer to digest and therefore their energy release is slower. However, one of the major concerns with these types of carbohydrate is not that they are high in starch, but rather that they are typically found in refined formats such as breads, crackers, noodles and pastries. The reason for this concern is because starchy carbohydrates like grains when made into a flour contain 10,000 times more surface area than the actual whole grain itself (think rice vs. rice noodle, or steel cut oatmeal vs. granola bar). This means that they are digested more like a simple carbohydrate than a starchy one. These types of refined foods are more quickly digested and sugars are absorbed into the blood stream faster. Therefore it is important to focus on starchy complex carbohydrates in their whole format, over those made out of their flours.
Fibrous Complex Carbohydrates
Examples: Most vegetables
Fibrous complex carbohydrates are the most forgotten form of carbohydrate and include most forms of vegetables, and as the name implies, are rich sources of fibre. Fiber is the indigestible carbohydrate and is the structural material in the leaves, stems and roots of plants, so it is found mostly in vegetables. Some starchy carbohydrate, such as potatoes and squashes, contain fibre as well, but are not predominantly made up of fibre and therefore don’t fall into this category. Unlike starch, fibre has little effect on blood sugar, so fibrous carbohydrates can actually help to slow the absorption of starch to the bloodstream, keeping you fuller longer and also help to support healthy digestion. Examples of fibrous complex carbohydrates include; broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, lettuce, mushrooms, etc…
So, when it comes to carbohydrates, the simple rule of thumb is that the more processed or refined a carbohydrate is the worse it is for you. Not all simple carbs are “bad”, and starchy carbs are “good”. Rather, it is the format, type and quantity in which we consume them that makes them an ideal choice or not.
So, what carbs do we eat? Here are some simple guidelines to keep in mind when it comes to carbohydrates:
- Focus on natural simple sugars (fresh fruit) over refined simple sugars (white sugar).
- Eat more complex carbohydrates (vegetables/legumes/grains) than simple carbohydrates (fruit).
- Eat more fibrous carbohydrates (vegetables) than starchy carbohydrates (grains/legumes).
- Eat more starchy vegetables (squash/potatoes) than grains (rice/oats/buckwheat).
- Focus on whole grains in their whole format (rice/oats) and limit those made of flours (noodles/crackers).
Remember, carbs are not unhealthy, they simply need to be consumed in their most natural format, and in reasonable amounts. The goal is simply to keep your gas tank fuelled in proportion to your level of activity, and the rest will take care of itself.