Carbohydrates or sugars are the main source of energy for our body. They are the main fuel for our brains and muscles. You could say that we need carbohydrates to think and move. Why is this so? Because our body has the ability to break down carbohydrates into glucose, which is basically sugar. Every cell in our body uses sugar for energy, through a process called cellular respiration. In general, it is recommended that 50% of our daily calorie intake be from carbohydrates and this number can of course vary. The variations are due to age, gender, physical activity, general health and others.
What are the different types of carbohydrates?
We have three different types of carbohydrates. We can find them in a variety of foods, from vegetables and fruits to processed foods like pastries.
Simple carbohydrates are the first category. These carbohydrates are composed of monosaccharides and disaccharides. As the name suggests, monosaccharides are unique units of sugar like glucose, galactose (milk and dairy products), and fructose (fruits and vegetables).
Disaccharides, on the other hand, combine two sugar molecules. You have certainly heard of lactose (made up of glucose and galactose), a carbohydrate in milk. Another important element is sucrose, our table sugar (combination of glucose and fructose).
Starch is the second category of carbohydrates. It is formed by polysaccharides, long chains of singular unit sugar (also called monosaccharides). Starch carbohydrates are found in pasta, bread, potatoes and cereals.
The last and most bizarre category is fiber. We don’t usually think of fiber as a carbohydrate, but it is. The big difference between these carbohydrates and the other two categories is that fiber cannot be digested by our body. Fiber is made up of polysaccharides, but it cannot be broken down into glucose like simple carbohydrates and starch can. Their main role is to regulate the absorption of sugars by the body. At the same time, they promote healthy and regular bowel movement.
How do they do it? The physiology of these mechanisms depends on the two types of fiber available to us, soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber passes through our digestive system and draws water to it. This results in the formation of a gel-like substance, which softens the stool and facilitates intestinal transit. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to stools and relieves constipation, hemorrhoids, and contributes to the overall health of the digestive system. Foods that contain a high amount of fiber are: nuts, beans, apples, blueberries, lentils, whole grains, brown rice, legumes, etc.
In general, simple carbohydrates and starch are digested and absorbed very quickly by the body. They pass into the bloodstream and immediately give a spike in energy. On the other hand, the fibers are not digested at all. On the contrary, they slow down the absorption of simple carbohydrates, which keeps our energy constant throughout the day.
Have you read and heard about “good” and “bad” carbohydrates everywhere? Have you demonized carbohydrates and are you afraid of them? Do you think they are the only reason you are gaining weight?
Carbohydrates are essential for a balanced diet and good nutrition. In addition, they are essential for the normal functioning of our brains, muscles and every cell in our body that produces energy. Carbohydrates are not bad for your health, on the contrary, they are the basis of a healthy diet, one of the three macronutrients.
The secret to “carbohydrates” is choosing the one that’s right for you. For example, a cake added to a healthy diet is not necessarily “bad” if you are someone who has high physical activity. On the other hand, if your life is sedentary, a cake will not give you the “right” energy. It can also provide a greater amount of calories from just carbohydrates and as a result your body may be lacking in one of the other macronutrients (protein and fat). Instead of a cake, you can choose a few fruits in this case. Fruits will give you sugar (like fructose) and fiber, to help the digestive system and keep energy levels constant, as mentioned earlier.
In addition, carbohydrates are not exclusively responsible for your weight. Our weight is the result of the absorption of calories and the use of those calories. Simply put, if you take in more calories than you expend during the day, your weight will increase. On this point, if you take in more carbohydrates than you need, your body will convert the carbohydrates into fat cells, also called fat (how this happens is a topic for next time). In conclusion, you see that carbohydrates cannot be classified as “good” and “bad”. It is the combination of the type, amount and required amount of carbohydrates that can have a positive or negative effect.
In conclusion, let’s not forget the importance of carbohydrates and the crucial role they play in a healthy body and mind. From simple carbohydrates to fiber, we need to integrate them all and add them to our daily diet. We can start to learn right now, how to make the right choice for ourselves and which carbohydrate is best for us. In the coming weeks, we’ll be discussing in more detail how much and what type of carbohydrate is best for supporting and preventing different diseases.
This article covers carbohydrates and their types in general. It does not refer to specific cases of people with underlying illnesses and should not be used as a doctor’s advice. For more information, we advise you to consult your general practitioner.