A Beginner’s Guide to Carbohydrates

By March 26, 2015Nutrition

Written by Christopher Smith

What exactly are carbohydrates? Where do they exist? Are they all bad? Do I need them? These are just a few of the many questions I hear all the time in regards to carbohydrates and in this article I am going to answer these questions for you.

Carbohydrates are biological molecules that are comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The word carbohydrate is really a general name to describe a large list of other names such as sugar, complex carbs, simple carbs, polysaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, fiber, cellulose… and that’s not even naming all of the different sugars, so it’s no wonder the topic of carbohydrates can be so confusing.

Glycemic Index: What is it?

The glycemic index or GI for short is a very handy system that measures a carbohydrate based on how it impacts blood sugar once a food has been consumed. This is done using a scale from 0 to 100. A food that is “high” or being closer to 100 would be considered less desirable than a food that is considered to be “low” or near 0. An example would be pineapple compared to broccoli. Pineapple, which is high in sugar would impact and spike blood sugar within minutes of ingestion and then fall quickly whereas the broccoli would give a very low steady stream of energy for a longer duration because it breaks down slower and it is calorically less dense.

Where are Carbohydrates Found?

We generally obtain carbohydrates from plant sources; however, some animal sources such as dairy also contain carbohydrates in the form of sugars. Fruits, vegetables, tubers, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and legumes contain carbohydrates in some form. Basically, if it grows in the dirt it contains carbohydrates.

But what about all those packaged and processed foods, do they contain them too? Yes, they do; typically these foods contain “bad” carbohydrates as they are empty and void of nutrition such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and phytonutrients. With that being said, let’s discuss the bad carbohydrates a little further and the names associated with them.

Bad Carbs

These are often referred to as simple carbohydrates, monosaccharides, disaccharides, or sugars. These are considered high on the glycemic index and help nurture diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, and obesity.

It is very difficult to become unhealthy eating produce or any food that grows from the ground and hasn’t been processed but it is possible to eat too much of a good thing. For example, a diet consisting of all calorie dense starches such as potatoes, carrots, rice, corn, and squash in excess could cause a person to gain unwanted body fat.

Here is a list of “bad” carbohydrates to either steer clear from or consume in moderation:

-All fruit juices

-Packaged, boxed, canned or bottled foods as these are generally processed

-White rice

-White bread

-All fried vegetables

-Flour-rich foods

-Anything high in sugar

The easiest way to be sure you are selecting healthy carbs is to stay away from the aisles and get your foods from the produce department at your local grocer.

Good (and Great) Carbs

These are often referred to as complex carbohydrates, polysaccharides, and oligosaccharides/cellulose, which is what we call fiber. These are considered to be low to medium on the glycemic index and help to prevent many diseases and enhance overall health.

There are good carbs and there are great carbs. Good carbs are medium on the glycemic index (around 50) and often include most fruits, root vegetables, oatmeal, brown rice, squashes, and beans. Great carbs are low on the glycemic index and consist of green leafy veggies, cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower), tomatoes and peppers (fruit), artichokes, asparagus, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, and zucchini.

Fiber

Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate that has no direct impact on raising blood sugar and that we obtain naturally through eating a diet rich in plant-based foods. When fiber is present in the gut in sufficient quantities, it helps to slow the digestion and absorption of whatever else is present in the gut. It can lower the glycemic index of a given food.

Fiber is found in two basic forms; soluble and insoluble. Both types of fiber are essential to a healthy digestive tract, strong immune system, and to aid in flushing unwanted waste from the body such as bile. Bile is produced by the liver and helps to bind unwanted waste so that it can be excreted. Without dietary fiber, bile and other waste products would build up to unhealthy levels which can create an environment for toxicity, high cholesterol, colon cancer, and constipation.

So, Do We Need Them?

Technically, no, we do not need carbohydrates in order to live. Our bodies can convert fats and proteins into the energy we need in order to survive. However, science does tell us that consuming healthy and unprocessed carbohydrates such as blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, kale, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, peppers, spinach, and things of the like will greatly enhance our lifespan and quality of life.

These amazing plant based foods along with many others not mentioned in this article are the only sources of countless nutrients that we cannot get from eating animal products alone. Not to mention the many benefits and roles fiber plays in our diets, which can only be gotten from plant sources.

If health is your goal, then be sure to add in the right carbohydrates that are rich in nutrition to your diet. Selecting the right ones will not only improve your health, energy, strength, and quality of life; it will help sculpt your body with a reduction in body fat.

Compliment your healthy carbohydrate choices with lean proteins, healthy fats, and a solid exercise regimen and see those results even faster.

Want to learn more about eating right and staying fit?  Download our free e-book: The 5 Pillars of Fitness.

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