A carbohydrate is essentially a starch or sugar found in food that can be easily turned into glucose during digestion . Our bodies use carbohydrates as energy for thinking, moving, and other essential organ functions. Certain foods are exclusively comprised of carbohydrates, and others contain a more balanced mix of carbs, fats and proteins. Some examples of carbohydrate foods are bread, fruit, potatoes, cereal, pasta and beans. Foods such as meats, oils, green vegetables, etc. have either 0 or very few grams of carbohydrate.
Sugars are carbohydrates, and can come from many sources- including fruits, sweeteners, syrups and jams. Starches are found typically in grains or starchy vegetables (like peas, corn, potatoes, beans).
Carbohydrates are an important part of the diet, and should typically make up no less than half of a person’s daily calories. Your body requires a steady stream of energy throughout the day, and by consuming carbs in balanced increments, you help maintain a healthy blood sugar wave within your body and keep energy levels consistent.
What are the different kinds?
Carbohydrate foods area classified into two categories: “simple carbs” and “complex carbs”. Simple carbs , sometimes referred to as simple sugars, refer to any carbohydrate that is digested and absorbed into the body very easily and quickly. This includes foods such as honey, maple syrup, candy, soda, potatoes, white breads, white pastas and rices, and white flour based baked goods.
Complex carbohydrates usually consist of starch, but have an extra fiber component which is harder for your body to break down. Examples of complex carbohydrates are whole grain bread, oatmeal, popcorn, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and beans.
Both types of carbohydrates deliver energy to your body, but in different ways. Simple carbohydrates provide a quick spike of energy, since they are so quickly metabolized. Complex carbs have more components to them that take longer to break down, thus providing a steady stream of energy. Complex carbohydrates are better to consume for hunger control, as your body is satisfied for much longer while the fiber takes time to metabolize.
There can be some misunderstanding surrounding food quality and grams of carbohydrates. For example, sweet potatoes contain more vitamins and minerals due to their orange color, but they are not lower in carbohydrates than white potatoes. Sweeteners such as agave, brown rice syrup, and raw sugar also contain comparable amounts of carbohydrates as white table sugar, except they are not as processed and refined. However, they contribute the same energy and blood sugar spikes because they are in the same simple carb category. Even gluten-free products can become misconstrued as lower-carb options, though most grains that are used in gluten free products are actually more carb-dense than wheat-containing products.
Why low carb diets became popular:
As mentioned previously, all bodies need carbohydrates for energy, along with a good balance of proteins and fats for optimal nutrition. When the body has too many resources at one given time, it initiates storage mechanisms to save these resources for later. This can happen with an excess of carbs, fats or proteins all the same- and results in weight gain. Consuming upwards of 65-80g of carbohydrates in one sitting is too many grams for your body to process at one time, which starts the storage process.
Some of your favorite carbohydrate foods may be easy to consume in smaller portions, while others hit the 65-80g threshold quickly. Think of a slice of toast or a palm sized portion of pasta- which is more acceptable? Both choices contain 15g of carbs. Most people can handle 1 toast but the 1/3 cup portion of pasta is out of the question! A dinner plate filled with pasta will be many-15g increments, and cause the blood sugar to spike. This is why some people decide to cut back on carbs, as they cannot maintain their weight and still enjoy portions of carbs they are used to.
Ultra low carb diets (less than 40g total for the day) can be categorized as “keto”, meaning that your body is so deprived of its main energy source that it needs to burn fat for fuel (a process called ketosis). This can result in quick fat loss- but because ketosis is a stress state naturally entered when your body senses that it is starving, when you do have a higher carb meal (and break ketosis), your body is very primed for fat storage. This can result in a yo-yo effect if one is not carefully monitoring every gram of carbohydrate consumed.
Implementing consistent eating patterns through your day and spacing carbohydrate foods out evenly can actually help increase your metabolism. For example, consuming oatmeal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pretzels as an afternoon snack will be easier for your body to process and utilize than having minimal carbs all day, then pasta and garlic bread for dinner.
No need to fear!
Carbohydrates are essential for healthy bodily function and energy production. It’s important to incorporate a balanced mix of carbs, fats and proteins into your everyday intake. Though carbohydrate foods can accumulate in calories easier than some other foods, in the end- any excess calories will cause weight gain. Instead of avoiding carbs completely, switch your focus to consuming more complex carbs with added benefits of fiber, seek out sugar from natural sources like fruits, and balance your day with carbohydrate foods in small consistent increments for an energy boost.
Brianna Mears, RD, LDN
The fundamental purpose of eating is to nourish your body. Through her comprehensive approach, She aims to help clients restructure their relationship with food and how it affects their lifestyle, while preparing them for successful long-term health maintenance through nutrition.