Carbohydrates are not the enemy. I hear too often from clients about their fear regarding eating carbohydrates, no fault to their own as the media has twist and turned carbohydrates into being “good” then “bad” and back again. Today I’m sharing with you all a quick primer on carbohydrates, followed by a couple more posts this month talking about this macronutrient group.
What are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients our bodies use as energy, protein and fat being the remaining two. Carbohydrates are technically a molecule that is made up of multiple atoms of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, better known in the biochemistry world as a saccharide. There are four main groups of saccharide (a.k.a. carbohydrates), mono-, di-, oligo-, and polysaccharides; mono- and disaccharides are “smaller” and most referred to as a sugar and you’ll quickly recognize these two from the –ose name (think sucrose, glucose, lactose, etc.). Polysaccharides mainly are those carbohydrates containing fibers.
Technically, we as humans do not need carbohydrates to survive; our bodies can make energy through the good fats and proteins we obtain from food as well (gluconeogenesis). Obviously, this isn’t an optimal situation or one that I would recommend for the majority of us, but it is possible. As I mentioned, carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy our bodies use and this energy can be obtained from many ways, mainly through diet (through directly eating sugar/carbohydrates), and by ways of our bodies tapping into stored sugar (i.e. glycogen) by glycogenolysis.
Let’s keep the science lesson at a minimum and get back to some basics of carbohydrates, most group these 4 groups of carbohydrates into “simple” and “complex”. Simple is often used with refined, refined I feel should be a term only attached to processed foods that are so refined, contain simple sugars (i.e. cookies, candy, soda, etc.).
One carbohydrate isn’t “bad” over the other, there’s a strategic time and place for both of these types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. For the vast majority of us simply wanting to live a healthy lifestyle, choosing complex carbohydrates and carbohydrates found in vegetables and fruits are the best. Simple carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits, coconut water, honey, etc.; can be specifically used to illicit an insulin response (fancy way of saying to increase the bodies response to sugar that you’ve eaten) in order to drive glucose (a.k.a. sugar) into cells (such as muscle cells) for energy or stored for the future in fat cells. Again, this can be strategic for example with athletes, recreational athletes, and even those suffering from hypoglycemia. Regardless of being strategic or not with your carbohydrate intake, one thing is universal, your body will either use those carbohydrates for energy or be stored for future use (in normal situations, not speaking of diabetes).
The simple/refined carbohydrates that we want to limit the most in our diets are those that are too prevalent in the US including sodas, cakes, candies, breads, crackers, hidden sugars in dressings, sauces, etc. These hidden sugars are incredibly cheap to produce, which makes it easy for large companies to fill their food products and adding to that “addicting” flavor. So what types of carbohydrates are the best to consume?
More on carbohydrates, fiber, and whole food sources in our next post. Check back for more!
McKel Hill, MS, RD, LDN is the creator of Nutrition Stripped, a plant-based whole foods blog focusing on nourishing recipes. McKel offers one-on-one nutrition coaching in the US and internationally.