Even the word brings fear into some people’s lives! It’s actually quite sad and frustrating how social media and marketing have pinned the international overweight and obesity epidemic on carbohydrates alone. I can promise you that eating sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and fruit did NOT make heart disease the leading cause of death in the U.S..
The problem does not lie in how many carbohydrates you eat, recent research has shown it has much more to do with the types of carbohydrates you’re eating. Quality vs. quantity - and the reason being is because of a few factors that we will cover in this article.
Before we dive into why the type of carbohydrates plays a much larger role in how our body utilizes those calories, let’s first cover the different types of carbohydrates so we understand what we are working with here. Carbohydrates are actually chemicals made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms and are normally classified by their polymer, or molecular length. There are four main types of carbohydrates (SOURCE).
Also known as simple sugars, these contain one unit. A few other names for this type of carbohydrate include fructose, glucose, and galactose. They act as building blocks of other carbohydrates. The types of foods that fall within this category include honey, dried fruits, jam/jelly, condiments like bbq sauce or ketchup, cereal, fresh fruit like grapes, apples, pear, kiwi, and banana, flavored yogurts, and lactose free milk.
This carbohydrate contains two units, or two molecules of simple sugars linked to each other. Other names include sucrose, maltose, lactose, and trehalose. Examples of disaccharide foods are sugar cane or beet, table sugar including baked goods like cookies, sweet root vegetables like beets and carrots, malt extract, wine and beer, breads/bagels, energy bars, and most milk products like cottage cheese, sour cream, fro-yo, and ice cream.
These have a long, complex name, but are the middle of the carbohydrate road with three to ten units. They are used by the body to bind with proteins and fats. The structures they create play an important role in healthy immune response, cell membranes, cell signaling, skin and more (SOURCE). You may not recognize the other names, but they include raffinose, stachyose, verbascose, inulin, fructo and galacto-oligosaccharides. Food sources include legumes, beans, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, onion, artichoke, fennel, asparagus, peas, and other prebiotic foods.
This is where things get complex, they have more than 10 units! They have two basic categories - starch and non-starch polysaccharides. Starch-based ones include cereal foods, cornmeal, pretzels, flours, oats, noodles, pasta, rice, potato, and small amounts in other root veggies. Non-starch includes vegetables, fruits, and whole grain cereals.
So fiber is technically either an oligosaccharide or polysaccharide based on it’s length, but what makes fiber different from other carbohydrates, is that it can’t be fully broken down by our body. This makes fiber kind of important, as it offers a number of health benefits and it actually limits the amount of carbohydrate your body can acquire from that food.
Let’s use an example for this one to make it easy to understand. Technically, a piece of whole fruit, like an apple, and a candy bar are actually similar in sugar content. A medium sized apple contains about 19 grams of sugar, while a Snickers bar has about 20 grams. Although, these foods act VERY different within the body. So why?
The nutrients found in the whole food! Fruit, like apples, contain vitamin C, potassium, a good amount of water, antioxidants, and FIBER. Whereas the candy bar, although tasty, is essentially table sugar with empty calories and no nutritional benefit.
When carbohydrates contain fiber and nutrients, it actually slows down digestion since our body can’t digest fiber. It also can help you feel full for longer, maintain a healthy weight, and improve digestive health because different types of fiber help feed our good gut bacteria!
We also need to address the carbohydrate density of foods, and what we mean by this is how the carbohydrate is actually stored within that food and how our body utilizes it. Plant foods like root vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, and other vegetables are considered to have low-carbohydrate density, meaning they actually store their carbohydrates as part of fiber-walled living cells. And these cells remain largely intact when cooked (SOURCE). Since the carbohydrates are stored within the cell walls, it means we’re only getting about 25% of those carbohydrates when consumed - we BURN the rest off!
Whereas with flours, sugars, and processed grains, they have ‘acellular’ carbohydrates, meaning they lack the intact cellular wall that stores the carbs. In turn, these processed foods have a really high carbohydrate density - about 75%. Meaning we have a larger blood sugar response from them, we tend to store more of them as energy/fat, and we receive far less nutrients from them. Lastly, these processed carbohydrates can create quite an issue in our gut, since it changes the amount of food and acid that reaches the gut, as well as the high amounts of sugars that end up in our digestive system and can wreak havoc on our gut microbiome.
We always hear from our clients - so how many carbs should I be eating? Or which ones should I avoid?
This kind of depends on the individual, their history with nutrition, their activity level, and their goals. Although, we can definitely give a general recommendation of what types of foods would be best to get the majority of your carbohydrates from. If you are a fairly active person, working out multiple times a week with intensity and getting other daily movement in, it is totally fine to consume things like bread, grains, pasta, or other more simple carbohydrate sources in moderation. With that being said, we do recommend that everyone - especially sedentary populations - get the majority of their carbohydrates from nutrient dense, fiber-rich sources!
A great list of these beneficial foods include:
So before we go demonizing carbs, remember that not all carbohydrates are created equal! The types, the amounts, and the purpose of those carbohydrates play a pretty large role in how our body will utilize them! Don’t miss out on our body’s favorite energy source out of fear, we can definitely live an extremely healthy, enjoyable life with carbs by our side!
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