There are a ton of people and websites telling us what’s good for us and what’s bad for us. Diets, in particular, have been one of those topics non-experts always ask about. Is being vegan better for your health? Can a paleo diet help me feel stronger? Or should I cut carbohydrates from my diet in order to lose weight?
Carbs are an interesting thing. We all love them, whether they’re in the form of bread, juice, rice and grains, cheese, cereals, ice cream, cakes, or milk. But with all these diet fads, carbs became a thing some people love and believe in while others hate it or think they should be banned from our diet.
Behind the science, they are broken down into different categories, molecular makeup, and names. But to keep it simple, we can explore what carbs are, their good and bad aspects, what they do for us, and the different types of carbs.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, also called saccharides, consist of three elements – carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They are a major food source, as most the foods in our food pyramid contain carbs, and are also a key form of energy.
When combined together to form polymers (chains), carbohydrates can function as long-term food storage molecules, as protective membranes for organisms and cells, and as the main structural support for plants.
Breaking down saccharides
Saccharides include starch, cellulose, and sugars, and are divided into four chemical groups: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides.
Monosaccharides, also known as simple sugars, are the smallest possible sugar unit. They include:
- Glucose – this is the main fuel for the cells in our body. And when we talk about blood sugar, we’re talking about glucose. It is also found as a monosaccharide in various fruits and sweeteners. For example, a large part of the carbohydrates found in blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, papaya and cantaloupe is glucose.
- Galactose – Galactose is the least common of monosaccharides and is only found linked to glucose in the disaccharide lactose. They are mostly found in dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt.
- Fructose – found in fruits and vegetables and participate in metabolism. Most sweeteners also contain fructose in varying proportions. For example, 50 percent of the sugar in honey is fructose, while this number goes up to 55 percent in high-fructose corn syrup and 90 percent in agave syrup.
Monosaccharides are non-essential nutrients, which means your body can produce all of those it needs for proper functioning from other nutrients, so you do not need to get them from food.
Like most nutrients, they are absorbed in the small intestine and can be absorbed without previously being broken down by the intestinal enzymes. Glucose and galactose are absorbed easily, completely, and faster than other carbohydrates, while fructose can be absorbed slowly and incompletely.
After ingestion, glucose and galactose quickly raise the blood sugar (they have high glycemic index), while fructose raises blood sugar only mildly and slowly (it has low glycemic index).
During digestion, all carbohydrates have to be broken down into monosaccharides in order to be absorbed.
What Is A Disaccharide?
Disaccharides are two monosaccharide molecules bonded together. Examples of disaccharides include lactose, maltose, and sucrose. If you bond one glucose molecule with a fructose molecule, you get a sucrose molecule.
Sucrose is found in table sugar and is often formed as a result of photosynthesis (sunlight absorbed by chlorophyll reacting with other compounds in plants). If you bond one glucose molecule with a galactose molecule, you get lactose, which is commonly found in milk.
Polysaccharides are a chain of two or more monosaccharides. The chain may be branched (the molecule looks like a tree with branches and twigs) or unbranched (the molecule is a straight line). Polysaccharide molecule chains may be made up of hundreds or thousands of monosaccharides.
The Different Types Of Polysaccharides
Different polysaccharides act as food stores in plants and animals. Polysaccharides also have structural roles in the plant cell wall and the tough outer skeleton of insects.
Glycogen: A polysaccharide that humans and animals store in the liver and muscles.
Starch: These are glucose polymers made up of amylose and amylopectin.
Starches are not water soluble. Humans and animals digest them using amylase enzymes. Rich sources of starches for humans include potatoes, rice, and wheat.
Cellulose: The structural constituents of plants are made mainly from the polysaccharide cellulose. Wood is mostly made of cellulose, while paper and cotton are almost pure cellulose.
Simple Carbs vs. Complex Carbs
Simple carbs are fairly easy for your body to digest. Not much happens in the mouth or stomach as most simple carbohydrate digestion occurs in the small intestine. Enzymes break the simple sugars into individual components that can cross the intestinal walls of and enter your bloodstream. Any sugar your body doesn’t use for fuel is converted to fat and stored in adipose tissue.
Simple Carb Foods To Avoid
Soda: They are usually packed with too much artificial sweeteners, food coloring, acid, and caffeine, causing dehydration, cavities, plaque, and diabetes. Try water or club soda flavored with fruits.
Packaged cookies: These cookies are more than likely full of genetically modified ingredients, bad sugars and fats, and artificial flavorings. Try baking at home with healthier flours (almond, coconut) and sweeteners like agave or applesauce.
Breakfast cereals: They are full of simple carbs, that can give you a quick burst of energy and then make you crash. But we all have our favorite cereals, and thankfully there are options that are better than others. Choose wisely by reading the nutrition label to see how much sugar, fiber, and carbs it has and what type of ingredients it has.
Complex carbs pack in more nutrients than simple carbs, because they are higher in fiber and digest more slowly. This also makes them more filling, which means they’re a good option for weight control. They are also ideal for people with type 2 diabetes because they help manage post-meal blood sugar spikes.
Fiber and starch are the two types of complex carbohydrates. Fiber is especially important because it promotes bowel regularity and helps to control cholesterol. The main sources of dietary fiber include:
- whole grains
Starch is found in some of the same foods as fiber. The difference is certain foods are considered more starchy than fibrous, such as potatoes. Other high-starch foods are:
- whole wheat bread
Complex carbohydrates are key to long-term health. They make it easier to maintain your weight, and can even help guard against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.
Complex Carbs You Should Eat More Of
Grains: Grains are good sources of fiber, as well as potassium, magnesium, and selenium. Choose less processed, whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and whole-wheat pasta.
Fiber-rich fruits: Choose fruits like apples, berries, and bananas, and avoid canned fruits, as they usually contain added sugar.
Fiber-rich vegetables: You can never really go wrong with vegetables, especially broccoli, leafy greens, and carrots.
Beans: Aside from fiber, these are good sources of folate, iron, and potassium. You can make bean dip, hummus, beans as a topping, or beans as a side dish.
What About Refined Carbohydrates?
Things like white bread, white pasta and white rice have become staples in the Standard American Diet. Even though there is a trend toward seemingly healthy wheat bread or whole grain pasta, these grains are still processed and refined. Refined carbohydrates are fake foods and should be avoided if you want to build health in your body.
Complex carbohydrates resist immediate breakdown and are converted into sugar over time–things like sweet potatoes. Refined carbohydrates have been stripped of other nutrients and have had their structure altered so they enter the bloodstream like an injection of sugar. This injection triggers the release of insulin which converts sugar into stored fat rather than energy, starving the brain of needed fuel.
Choosing the right carbs can be hard sometimes, especially with all these foods playing pretend. But researching which brands are truthful in what they advertise, and sticking to as natural as possible, is usually the best way to go.
Let us know what else you think we should know about carbs!