What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that we need to consume to maintain a healthy and balanced diet; the other two are protein and fats. Carbohydrates are the fibers, sugars, and starches, which are present in all fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk-based products.

Why do we need carbohydrates?

Although carbohydrates have gained a bad reputation due to “zero carb” fad diets, that have presented themselves over the years, or “bad carbs” in general, they are a vital nutrient. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy and are used first before any other nutrient source is considered. It’s recommended that 45-60% of our energy requirements should come from carbohydrate sources.

Carbs help with the following:

  • They are the primary energy source used for our bodies daily functions.
  • Protect muscle wastage, as the body will use up available carbohydrates first as a source of energy; without carbohydrates available, the body would start to use the protein from our muscles as a fuel source.
  • Help to provide nutrients to all of the good bacteria that we have in our intestines, which will help us digest our food more efficiently.

Types of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are categorized as either simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates are known to be a lot worse for you than complex carbohydrates, although many people do not understand the difference.

Complex carbohydrates

Starch and fiber are known as polysaccharides, which means that they are made up of lots of units of sugar. Plant and grain-based foods all contain starches.

Excluding fiber, all carbohydrates are broken down into monosaccharides when your body digests them. These simple sugars can then be absorbed into your bloodstream and then converted into energy. Fiber is not able to be completely broken down via your digestive system, due to the lack of enzymes available.

It’s also important to consider whether your carbohydrate source has been refined or not, as this will dictate any additional health benefits or negatives. Wholegrain and uncooked vegetables have a plethora of nutrients in, but unfortunately, a lot of these nutrients are lost when these foods are processed or cooked.

Simple carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates can be found naturally, although they are more associated with artificially created foods. Simple carbohydrates are broken down into monosaccharides and disaccharides, which are comprised of either one or two sugar units, respectively. Monosaccharides are things like glucose and fructose, whereas disaccharides are sucrose (table sugar). Monosaccharides can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream and require no additional breakdown from enzymes, unlike disaccharides or polysaccharides.

Fruit is filled with simple sugars, like fructose. Fructose is commonly found in soda and candy too, although there are of course no health benefiting nutrients in these food sources. Fructose doesn’t have the same adverse effects on your body when consumed via fruits, that it would do if it were from soda, due to the additional nutrients that are present in fruit.

Fruit is loaded with fiber and vitamins, which help to slow the digestion of the carbohydrates, which in turn, will reduce the chances of your blood sugar spiking, compared to having a gulp of soda or a candy bar.

How does the body handle carbohydrates?

Some of the excess calories that you consume are stored as glycogen in your body. Glycogen is a complex carbohydrate and is primarily stored in your liver and muscle cells. Your body can store roughly 2000 calories worth of glycogen at one time.

When your muscle’s glycogen stores are filled up, your body will then start to store the excess calories gained from carbohydrates, as fat. Any excess calories from fat or protein are also stored as fat in the body too. These fat cells are primarily found in your skin, as well as surrounding your organs.

Consumption of unrefined carbohydrates can quickly raise insulin levels. These high insulin levels will result in your body storing a lot more fat, as well as diminishing the body’s capability of burning that fat. This will make your body use more carbohydrates as its fuel source, while making fat even less of a priority. Consuming healthy carbohydrates can limit insulin release, as well as to promote the release of glucagon. This hormone reverts the storing process of glycogen, converting it back into glucose, which then adds it back into your bloodstream.

Mum of two. Loves cooking, doing arts & crafts with the kids, and long beachy dog walks.

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