Everything You Need to Know About Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the macronutrient that our bodies need the most to give us energy and support bodily functions and physical activity. 45-65% of our daily food intake should be carbohydrates. There are many different types of carbs, including simple carbs and simple sugars, and complex carbs such as starch, fibre, and glycogen. This post will provide you with simple explanations of each of the different types of carbohydrates as well as intake recommendations to have and maintain a healthy diet.
Simple carbs include monosaccharides (1 sugar) and disaccharides (2 sugars). Monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Glucose is the primary type of sugar in the blood and is the major energy source for the body's cells. Fructose is found in fruit, and honey, and makes up 50% of table sugar (sucrose). It is also used for energy in the body after being converted into glucose. Galactose is the third monosaccharide and is found in dairy products, avocadoes, and sugar beets.
Lactose, sucrose, and maltose are the three disaccharides:
- Maltose is made up of two glucose molecules bound together, and it is created in seeds and other parts of plants as they break down their stored energy in order to sprout. Thus, foods like cereals, certain fruits, and sweet potatoes contain naturally high amounts of this sugar.
- Sucrose is made up of one glucose and one fructose molecule and is commonly known as table sugar. There are many sugar myths associated with sucrose. At the end of the day, we can verify that excess amounts of sucrose (table sugar) lead to dental cavities and an increased chance of Type 2 Diabetes.
The form of carbohydrate which you consume has an effect on satiety (how long you feel full). That is why it is very important to be careful how much of your calories come from drinks, especially high-sugar beverages and canned sodas as they have a large amount of sucrose and have on average 150 calories per 12-ounce can. This is a lot of empty calories and goes hand in hand with excess calorie intake and weight gain!
- Lactose is made up of one glucose and one galactose molecule. It is known as milk sugar and is found in milk and milk products.
Lactose intolerance happens when your small intestine does not make enough of a digestive enzyme called lactase. In this case, undigested lactose travels through the small intestine and attracts water which leads to bloating and cramps. It passes to the colon and where there are water reabsorption inefficiencies, which lead to discomfort and diarrhea.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules strung together in long complex chains. They are found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. The three complex carbs are starch, fibre, and glycogen. These are also turned into glucose in the body and are used as energy.
Glycogen is the stored form of glucose (energy). Starchy foods are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. Unpeeled potatoes, whole wheat bread, brown or multi-grain rice, and whole wheat pasta are all examples of starchy foods and should make up a quarter to a third of the food you eat. Fibre is the portion of the plant-derived from foods that cannot be digested by enzymes in the human body. Soluble and insoluble fibre is important for many reasons which I will explain below. Some foods high in fibre are lentils, broccoli, berries, avocado, and whole grains.
1. Limit your consumption of foods high in sugars
Simple carbs are sugars and starches that have been refined and stripped of their natural fibre and nutrients. They tend to have higher amounts of sugar calories and overall less nutritional value. Added sugars such as fructose, molasses, corn syrup, and table sugar should be limited in our diet. They are less nutrient-dense, thus adding calories to the diet, but fewer nutrients.
Complex carbs and fibre-rich starchy sources from minimally processed whole foods are excellent for our overall gut health and reduce the risk for both cancer and coronary heart disease.
2. Avoid refined carbohydrates
In a grain, there are three components. The bran is the outermost layer; it has fibre and is a good source of vitamins. The germ lies at the base of the kernel and is the plant embryo. It is also rich in fibre as well as vitamin E and lots of Vitamin Bs including B6. Lastly, there is the endosperm, which is primarily starch and also contains a bit of protein and vitamins.
Refined carbs are foods that have undergone processes that change or remove various components of the original food. Refined carbs typically only have the endosperm left, such as white rice, white bread, and white pasta. They tend to produce a product with better taste and a longer shelf life than unrefined carbs, but they have reduced amounts of vitamins, minerals, or dietary fibre.
Unrefined carbs do not have parts of the grain stripped from them. Therefore they contain much more nutrients than refined carbs. Unrefined carbs include whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. Eating refined carbs is fine in the diet, but it is much more beneficial to start selecting whole-grain alternatives to things like white rice, flour, and bread.
3. Insoluble and soluble fibre benefits
Soluble fibre is found in foods such as pears, avocados, sweet potatoes, barley, oats, and oranges. It tends to be found on the insides of fruits and vegetables, whereas insoluble fibre tends to be found in the outer layers of fruits and vegetables. Fibre cannot be digested by human enzymes; Soluble fibre slows down your food in the digestion stages, therefore it has the large benefit of improving satiety which makes you feel full longer. Soluble fibre binds cholesterol and bile in your body and makes a gel-like substance preventing their absorption, reducing total blood cholesterol and, therefore, reducing the risk of heart disease.
There is lots of insoluble fibre found in apples, peas, lentils, broccoli, and whole wheat bread, as well as found in the outer layers of most fruits and vegetables. Insoluble fibre also has many benefits. It does not dissolve in water and cannot be broken down by bacteria in the large intestine. This creates a bulking effect and stimulates GI tract motility. Because of its bulking effect, it dilutes colon contents and aids in the removal of feces from the colon.
Having a diet high in soluble and insoluble fibre has a key role in weight loss and weight management because of the increased satiety (feeling full) from the soluble fibre forming a gel and the insoluble fibre creating a bulk. This prevents overeating. High-fibre foods also take longer to eat and chew, which means your body uses up more calories when eating them. The current recommended intake is 12-15 grams of fibre per day.
4. Don't "Avoid" Carbs
There is a lot of misinformation online and throughout history where we have been told that all carbohydrates are bad and lead to an increase in weight and obesity. Eating any food in moderation, and maintaining a calorie deficit, will not lead to a spike in weight gain.
According to the 2019 Canadian Food Guide, about 1/4 of our plate should be grain products. This is where we get the majority of our carbs from. We want the majority of our grains to be whole wheat and unrefined. The majority of our carbohydrate choices should be complex carbs with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. Choosing carbs that are high in soluble and insoluble fibre and low in added sugar will be better for our diet and will in hand help with weight loss.
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