Understanding Carbohydrates: The Good Carbs, The Bad Carbs, and Why You Need Them
There is a common stigma that carbohydrates are bad for you and are the reason people are overweight. While certain carbs aren’t healthy in large quantities, especially without proper exercise, carbohydrates actually play a significant role in a healthy diet.
Understanding carbohydrates is a key step in leading a healthier lifestyle. That’s why it’s vital you know the nutritional value carbs play in your diet.
WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES?
Carbohydrates are the fibers, starches, and sugars found in various foods you eat. In order for your muscles and central nervous system to work properly, you need carbohydrates to fuel them. This is why carbohydrates are one of the body’s main sources of energy.
Carbohydrates are macronutrients, meaning they are a substance required in large quantities. There are two other macronutrients the body needs: protein and fat.
The body cannot produce macronutrients on their own, which is why we turn to our diet for them. Macronutrients are in charge of providing your body with a source of energy, also known as calories.
At the chemical level, carbohydrates contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, hence why they’re called carbohydrates.
According to Iowa State University, carbohydrates prevent your muscles from being used as an energy source, while also enabling fat metabolism. This is important for healthy, strong muscles, while also aiding in weight loss.
Once carbohydrates are consumed, your body breaks them down into smaller units of sugar. Once this transformation occurs, the small units of sugar get absorbed by the intestine, which begin to enter your bloodstream and end up in your liver. This is where the liver converts the sugar into glucose, which is then converted to energy your body needs to function.
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. The main distinguishing factor is how the molecules are structured.
Simple carbs contain one or two sugars, also known as monosaccharides and disaccharides, respectively. Monosaccharides are known as the building blocks of disaccharides and polysaccharides (found in complex carbohydrates).
- Fructose (found in fruits)
- Galactose (found in dairy products)
- Glucose (dextrose)
- Lactose (found in dairy products)
- Maltose (found in beer and some vegetables)
- Sucrose (table sugar)
Foods that have been highly refined or are in their purest form are considered to be simple carbs. This pure form makes them easy for your body to break down.
Since simple carbs are easier to digest and absorb, they are great for providing quick bursts of energy. However, a major consequence of this is increased blood sugar levels, which is why it’s best to consume simple carbs in moderation.
This is why your mom always told you not to load up on sugar. Once you consume a bunch of sugary foods, you get a quick burst of energy since the carbs are so easy to break down. However, this is usually followed by a sharp crash, leaving you feeling like a nap.
Many types of junk food (i.e. soda and candy) contain simple carbs. They are usually made from heavily processed and refined sugars and contain no nutritional value.
According to the NIH, these are called “empty calories.” Empty calories come from foods that contain essentially no nutritional value, meaning you’re more likely to consume more food since those containing empty calories don’t fill you up.
Due to this, many people that consume these types of foods may experience weight gain.
Some basic simple carbs include:
- White flour
- White rice
- Sugar (in any form, including coconut sugar, honey, and maple syrup)
Simple carbs are typically deemed unhealthy carbs. This is mainly due to the fact they hold almost no nutritional value.
This means when you eat simple carbs, you’re essentially consuming empty calories. In other words, you’re increasing your caloric intake without reaping any benefits.
So if you’re looking to lose weight or just eat healthier overall, you should ditch the simple carbs.
Some simple carbohydrates to avoid:
- Baked goods
- White bread
Criteria for unhealthy carbohydrates:
- Contain a high amount of calories
- Full of refined sugars and grains (white sugar, fruit juices, white flour, etc.)
- High in sodium
- Low in nutrients and fiber
So essentially, avoid sugar-laden and (heavily) processed foods.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, contain three or more sugars known as polysaccharides (or oligosaccharides).
Compared to simple carbs, complex carbs are unrefined, meaning they still contain essential nutrients (vitamins and minerals) you need in your diet.
Unlike simple carbs, complex carbs usually contain fiber. And as you probably know by this point in your life, fiber is a main contributor to you feeling full for longer. This is because carbs high in fiber take longer to digest, which gives your body more time to break everything down.
Here are some examples of complex carbs:
- Whole-grain bread and cereal
Since complex carbs take more time to digest and absorb, they are your main source of sustained energy. This is why you always hear people telling you to eat whole-grains and vegetables!
So needless to say, you should focus more on consuming complex carbs to keep you full, provide you with sustained energy, and help you get your daily does of essential nutrients. Obviously in moderation, with a healthy does of protein and fats as well!
Complex carbohydrates are what are known as healthy carbs. Makes sense, considering simple carbs are the unhealthy ones.
Here’s a little summary of the types of carbs you should be stuffing your face with:
- Whole grains (bread, cereal, pasta)
Criteria for healthy carbohydrates:
- Low in calories
- Contain a bountiful amount of nutrients
- Free from refined sugars and grains
- Low in (or free from) cholesterol, sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats
And every once in a while, it’s okay to devour some cheese bread. Because let’s be honest here: I would rather die than live in a world where I can’t eat the things I love (in moderation).
HOW THE BODY PROCESSES CARBOHYDRATES
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Cool, but how?
It’s actually pretty simple.
When you consume carbohydrates, your body digests and breaks them down into glucose or a sugar that can easily be converted into glucose. Your small intestine then absorbs the glucose. It then briefly enters the liver before being distributed to the circulatory system.
Your cells then consume the glucose, providing your body with the energy it needs. Once the cells get enough glucose, the remaining glucose is stored in the liver for use later.
Unlike with starches and sugars, fiber is not converted to glucose. Instead, fiber makes its way to the large intestine and is converted into hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and fatty acids.
The human body is able to store up to 2,000 calories of glucose in the liver and skeletal muscles in the form of glycogen. This is if the glucose isn’t needed right away as a source of energy.
If the leftover glucose is more than what your liver can hold, the body stores it as fat for long-term storage. So this means once your glycogen stores are full, any excess carbohydrates you’ve consumed are then stored as fat.
When you don’t consume enough carbohydrates, the body turns to fat as it’s main source of energy. This is how low-carb diets, like the Keto Diet, work where the body starts producing ketones which then fuel your body.
CARBS IN YOUR DIET
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2015-2020 suggests 45 to 65 percent of your daily caloric intake come from carbohydrates. So what does this mean in terms of your daily eating behavior?
If you consume 2000 calories a day, you should aim for between 900 and 1300 calories from carbohydrates alone. The actual percentage of calories from carbohydrates depends on your daily protein and fat consumption goals.
Be wary of simple carbs in your diet since they generally provide no nutritional value. These empty calories do contribute to your overall caloric intake but don’t benefit your diet, meaning they don’t fill you up, which can contribute to a higher daily caloric intake if you eat too much.
Too Many Carbohydrates
Unfortunately, it is entirely possible to consume too many carbs. Tragic, I know…
Some of the most common side effects of too many carbohydrates are:
- Weight gain
- Problems controlling blood sugar levels
- Digestive issues
Too many carbs in your diet, especially if your daily caloric intake exceeds how much your body expends in a day, can lead to weight gain.
As mentioned earlier, excess carbohydrates broken down into glucose get stored in your liver. If there’s not enough room in your liver for it, it then gets stored as fat.
Blood Sugar Levels
Another problem caused by a diet with too many carbs is difficulty controlling blood sugar levels.
You now know that carbohydrates get broken down into glucose that is transported throughout your bloodstream. Your body tissues are then able to use this sugar to provide your body with the energy it needs to perform day to day tasks.
However, when you consume simple carbs, such as soda or candy, your body experiences a spike in blood sugar levels, since these simple carbs are digested so quickly.
When this happens, your body releases hormones to counteract this rise in blood sugar levels. A lot of times, though, this results in overcompensation, resulting in a drastic blood sugar level drop, more commonly known as a sugar crash.
Now when this keeps happening, controlling blood sugar levels becomes harder for your body to do.
It has been shown that people who consume high-carb diets that cause blood sugar spikes are more likely to develop type-2 diabetes.
So if that isn’t reason enough to watch your carbohydrate intake and limit how many simple carbs you consume, then I don’t know what is.
Another common problem with eating too many carbohydrates (the good kind) is getting too much fiber.
Long story short, dietary fiber helps relieve constipation. You know. I know. We all know it.
So when you consume a lot of fiber-rich carbs, you may just end up with diarrhea. It should be noted that consuming too much fiber while not drinking enough water can actually result in constipation. Oh, the irony.
Other issues related to consuming too much fiber too quickly are bloating and flatulence.
The University of Michigan Health System recommends a diet consisting of 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day.
If you’re someone who doesn’t get nearly enough daily fiber, start off small and then gradually increase your intake until you reach the recommended amount. And don’t forget to drink at least 64 ounces of water a day!
Otherwise, you may encounter the above problems. And let’s be honest here – that doesn’t make for a good time.
Not Getting Enough Carbohydrates
Just like with consuming too many carbohydrates, it’s possible to consume too little and experience side effects.
With low-carb diets, like the keto diet, carbohydrates are no longer sufficient to fuel your body. Due to this, you body turns to burning fatty acids, which in turn creates ketones.
Now the keto diet focuses on low-carb, moderate protein, and high fat intake. Due to this, your body is (most likely) getting enough macronutrients to run properly and keep up with your lifestyle.
However, if you simply stick to your normal diet with moderate protein and low fat while also drastically reducing carbs, bad things can happen. When this type of eating behavior takes place, you’re not consuming enough calories, causing your metabolism to slow down.
This in turn causes your body to go into a starvation-type mode. Long story short, since you aren’t consuming enough carbs to make glucose or fat to produce ketones, your body starts converting muscle into glucose to fuel your brain, organs, and any physical functions.
When this happens, you body doesn’t function like it was meant to, which is extremely dangerous.
That’s why it’s best to ensure you are consuming the proper amount of macronutrients each day based on proven diets and your lifestyle.
TRACKING YOUR CARBS
If you’re struggling to lose weight or just want to know how much of a certain macronutrient you’re putting in your body, it might be wise to track your daily caloric intake. The easiest way I’ve found is through the MyFitnessPal App.
It’s free to use, with the option to upgrade to the Premium account for a better understanding of the calories you’re eating and where they’re coming from. However, the free account works great, too!
You can set your daily calorie goals based on your weight goals and monitor it throughout the day. When you exercise, you can input what type of exercise you performed to see how many calories you’ve burned.
It also has just about any type of food you could think of on there with all of the nutritional information pertaining to it, making it easy to track what you eat.
So if you’re serious about tracking your macronutrients, you should give the MyFitnessPal App a try!
In addition to using the MyFitnessPal App mentioned above, it’s important to make sure you’re buying the right foods.
When looking at the nutrition labels on food, they show the total of all three sources of carbohydrates (fiber, starches, and sugars), also known as total carbohydrates.
You should pay attention to these three things:
- Serving size
- Servings per container
- Amount of total carbohydrates (in grams)
The nutritional information on nutrition labels, like the one above for Doritos Cool Ranch chips, represent nutritional information based on specific serving sizes.
In this case, the serving size is 1 oz, or about 12 chips. The label shows there are about 9 servings per container. That means if you were to eat a whole bag of these Doritos, you’d have to multiply each value by 9, which means you’ve consumed quite a bit of calories (1,350 to be exact!).
The amount of total carbohydrates, or any other nutritional information on the label, corresponds to one serving size. This is important to pay attention to if you eat more than one serving.
Total carbohydrates include:
- Dietary fiber
- Sugar (total of natural and added)
- Sugar alcohols (sometimes)
When tracking your macros, you generally track net carbohydrate intake.
To do this, simply subtract the amount of fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carbs, and you’re left with net carbs. Based on the nutrition label above, 1 serving would result in 150 calories and16g net carbs.
Learning how to read nutrition labels, or even looking at them for the first time in your life (don’t worry, you’re not alone), will give you a better understanding of what exactly you’re eating and how it helps you gain or lose weight.
Since the goal here is learning how to lose weight, especially healthily, I highly advise reading nutrition labels! It’s good to know what you’re putting in your body.
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