If you think all carbohydrates are “bad,” you need to reexamine your assumptions. All carbs, it ends up, are not created equal.
The word “carbohydrate” is a broad term used to describe a large number of different compounds that are all composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The main forms of carbohydrates are called monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharides, and fiber.
In general, sugars are referred to as simple carbohydrates and starches as complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates provide short, sharp bursts of energy while complex carbohydrates provide a steady slow supply of energy.
Simple carbs are so named because they are made up of monosaccharides and disaccharides, which are simple molecules. Simple carbohydrates are found in foods such as honey, corn syrup and table sugar.
Complex carbs get their name from the fact that they are made up of polysaccharides, which are much bigger, more complex molecules. Foods such as green leafy vegetables, other vegetables and whole grains contain complex carbohydrates. Beans, legumes, nuts and seeds also contain complex carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates represent the main source of energy in the human diet, supplying the base our cells use to make energy. In the body, carbohydrates are broken down to glucose, which is used to generate energy (carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram). Not eating enough carbohydrates forces your body to make glucose from other body tissues, primarily muscle.
Carbohydrates also assist in maintaining blood sugar levels and preserving digestive health. In addition, fiber is a form of carbohydrate that aids intestinal health and can help lower cholesterol.
Fiber is essentially the indigestible portion of the carbohydrate and can be classified into two forms—soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber easily disperses in water, forming a viscous gel that slows down digestion and has two subsets: gums and pectin. Insoluble fiber does not disband in water but moves through the digestive tract intact, promoting regular bowel movements. Soluble fiber is found in oats, legumes, apples, barley and citrus fruits while insoluble fiber can be found in whole wheat flour, wheat bran, beans, vegetables and flaxseeds.
Although the exact amount of carbohydrates needed to reduce disease risk is unknown, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that carbohydrates provide a range of 45 to 65% of your calories per day, with no more than 25% coming from added sugars. In addition, the IOM recommends that both children and adults eat at least 130 grams of carbohydrates per day to ensure that the brain has enough energy to function. If you are following an extremely low-carb diet, you may not be getting enough carbohydrates.
When choosing carbs, quality is the name of the game. Let’s face it, the carbohydrates in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and peas do not cause obesity. In fact, these foods provide healthy carbs and are wonderful sources of many important vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and phytochemicals. On the flip side, be sure to manage your refined carbohydrate (such as white or all purpose flour) or added sugar intake. Diets high in sugar can make it difficult to get enough essential nutrients.