What is a carbohydrate?
A lot of you may equate carbohydrates with bread and pasta. You’re right in that thought, but you can also find them in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy products, and many sweet desserts. A carbohydrate is a molecule that is made up of multiple atoms of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, and known as a saccharide. You may have heard of one or a few of the four kinds of carbohydrates: mono-, di-, oligo-, and polysaccharides. If you took Latin, you’ll recognize that mono- and disaccharides are the “smaller” variations of the four types of carbs. These are mostly referred to as sugar (think sucrose, glucose, lactose, etc.) On the other hand, polysaccharides are carbohydrates containing fibers.
If you have ever wondered how this important macronutrient plays an essential role in your everyday health, then you’re in the right place. I’m going to give you the full scoop on all things carbs, and a few ways to incorporate a healthy mix of whole-food carbohydrates into your diet.
What do carbohydrates do for our bodies?
Carbohydrates, along with fats and proteins, are macronutrients that our bodies use as energy. Our brains, muscle tissue, and cells all use carbohydrates in different ways, in varying amounts, and ratios.
What are good carbs?
They provide you with sustained energy that won’t fall flat to an afternoon crash, they fuel your post-work workout class, they work to balance your blood sugars, and they provide fiber to support healthy digestion.
What foods have carbs?
Start here to find whole food sources of carbohydrates:
- Fruits like raspberries, apples, and bananas.
- Vegetables: leafy greens, broccoli, artichoke hearts.
- Starchy Vegetables: sweet potatoes.
- Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
- Legumes: black beans and lentils.
- Whole grains: oatmeal, and quinoa, and millet, which are both pseudo-grains (they’re actually seeds!)
Simple Carbohydrates vs. Complex Carbohydrates
So what are refined carbs? You can take it a step further and think about these four types of carbohydrates as “simple” and “complex.” In a nutshell, monosaccharides and disaccharides are also known to be refined, and they’re found in processed foods like cookies, candy, and soda.
However, they can also be found in many fruits, coconut water, and honey. These types of carbohydrates are digested very quickly, and they can be specifically used to elicit an insulin response, which is an increase in your body’s response to the sugar that you’ve eaten. It drives glucose (a.k.a. sugar) into your cells (like muscle cells) for energy or stored for the future in fat cells. These hidden sugars are incredibly cheap to produce, which makes it easy for large companies to use them in their food products.
On the other hand, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides digest slowly–think of them as high fiber carbs. These types of carbohydrates are known to be “complex” and can include anything like carrots, apples, broccoli, whole wheat grains, and quinoa.
Complex carbohydrates go beyond simple sugars—they also have fiber and starch. Since they often pack more nutrients, they’re considered to be more beneficial for your health too.
And while I won’t say that one carbohydrate is “worse” than the other, the majority of us who strive to live a healthy lifestyle want to prioritize complex carbohydrates and carbohydrates that are found in vegetables and fruits.
Therefore, carbohydrates aren’t necessarily the enemy, it just depends on how much you intake – not too little and not too much, just the right amount. If you want to learn more about food and nutrition, check out our medical page here where you can find interesting stories about how to live a happier and healthier life!