Carbohydrates are one of your body’s main sources of energy. While we can most certainly survive and even thrive without sugar, it would be quite difficult and often dangerous to completely eliminate carbohydrates from your diet. Why? Because these carbohydrates supply energy whenever and wherever we need it.
To be very precise, carbs are one of 3 macronutrients found in food – the others being fat and protein. All three are important for our health, including maintaining a healthy weight, blood glucose level management, and muscle mass.
In this article we will focus on carbohydrates exclusively, including their health benefits, healthier sources of carbohydrates, and how they can help you maintain a healthy weight.
Types of Carbohydrates
All carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars in our bodies. As the sugar level rises in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin, which is needed to move sugar from the blood into the cells, where the sugar can be used as energy. This is exactly how the carbs provide us with energy. So how many different types of carbs are there? We can identify 3 different types of carbohydrates: sugars, starch and fiber.
Sugars are simple carbohydrates such as fructose, glucose, and lactose.
There are two types of sugar: naturally occurring and added sugars. A high-sugar diet is often linked with obesity and tooth decay. So let’s review naturally occurring sugar and added sugar.
- Sugars in honey, syrups (such as maple, agave and golden), nectars (such as blossom), and unsweetened fruit juices, vegetable juices and smoothies occur naturally.
- There are also added sugars. These are any sugars added to food or drinks. These include sugars in cakes, cookies, sweetened drinks, processed foods, chocolate, flavored yoghurts, breakfast cereals and sodas. These sugars are added by food manufacturer, restaurants or at home. Foods that are high in added sugar also tend to be high in calories and low in nutrition.
Opting for natural sugars, such as those found in dairy and fruits is always a better choice than grabbing a snack filled with added sugars.
Starches are complex carbs that consist of many sugar molecules joined together
Traditionally, complex carbs have been viewed as healthier options because they gradually release sugar into the blood, rather than causing blood sugar levels to spike rapidly.
Starches include bread, rice, pasta, cereal grains and root vegetables and starchy vegetables like beans, peas, corn, and potatoes. They are good sources of minerals, B vitamins, and fiber. Starchy foods can also provide fiber which is needed for good digestive health and is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest
And that’s a good thing. Even though most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, fiber cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and instead it passes through the body undigested. Fiber helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check.
A diet rich in fiber can help digestion and prevent constipation. There is also some evidence to suggest that choosing foods with more fiber can also makes us feel fuller.
Complex vs. Simple Carbs
Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and are a more stable source of energy than simple carbohydrates. Because complex carbohydrates take longer to break down, they provide more lasting energy in the body than simple carbohydrates. Both types of carbohydrate are often present in many foods.
What are some examples of complex carbs?
Examples of complex carb foods include brown rice, quinoa, barley, bulgur, oatmeal, other whole grains. Potatoes and sweet potatoes, corn, and legumes, are also complex carbohydrates.
Unlike simple carbs, complex carbohydrates are digested slowly, causing a gradual rise in blood sugar. They’re usually high in nutrients and fiber, which can help prevent serious disease, aid with weight-loss, and improve your energy levels. In general, “good” carbohydrates have a lower glycemic load and can even help guard against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.
Complex carbs include:
- Unrefined whole grains – whole wheat or multigrain bread, brown rice, barley, quinoa, bran cereal, oatmeal
- Non-starchy vegetables – spinach, green beans, Brussels sprouts, celery, tomatoes
- Legumes – kidney beans, baked beans, peas, lentils
- Nuts – peanuts, cashews, walnuts
How about simple carbs?
Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly by the body to be used as energy. They are found naturally in foods such as fruits, milk, and milk products. They are also found in processed and refined sugars such as candy, table sugar, syrups, and soft drinks. Some examples include:
- White sugar
- brown sugar
- Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup.
- Glucose, fructose, and sucrose.
- Fruit juice concentrate
Refined vs. unrefined carbs
All of the carbohydrates also fall into one of two groups: they’re either refined or unrefined. Unrefined carbohydrates refer to those carbohydrates that are in their natural state. For example, when a starch is found in nature it’s considered to be unrefined. When it’s been changed and altered so that it no longer resembles its original design, it’s considered to be refined. Refined carbohydrates undergo processing, which removes many essential vitamins and minerals.
Natural foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, and uncooked vegetables are all top sources of unrefined carbohydrates. Consuming the recommended amount of these unrefined foods can be beneficial to your health.
These are usually starches that are comprised mostly of glucose, the primary sugar in our blood. Glucose is the sugar that our body calls upon to supply energy wherever and whenever needed. Building cells, healing wounds, thinking thoughts or moving limbs – all those processes require glucose.
Some examples of unrefined carbohydrates include:
- Whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat flour, quinoa, buckwheat)
- Legumes (chickpeas, peanuts, beans and peas)
- Vegetables (root vegetables such as carrots, or broccoli and spinach)
The main dietary sources of refined carbs are white flour, white bread, white rice, cookies, cakes, pastries, sodas, snacks, pasta, sweets, breakfast cereals and added sugars. They are also added to all sorts of processed foods. Basically refined carbs are simple carbs. They are sugars and refined grains that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients.
Some examples of refined carbohydrates include:
- White stuff: white bread, white flour, cakes and pastries, white rice, white sugar
- Pizza dough