Carbohydrate Basics For The Health Conscious

Carbohydrate Basics For The Health Conscious

Do you find yourself skipping the chips and dip?  Vowing to go no carb or low carb?  Do you think carbs are evil?  In reality, everyone needs carbs to live -- you honestly can't live without them.  And contrary to popular belief, there are more types of carbohydrates than just chips and pasta. A carbohydrate can come in many different varieties, some are good for your body and others bad.  Continue reading to discover what exactly defines a carbohydrate, the different types of carbohydrates, and how you can use carbs to stay healthy.

What's a Carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates are one of the three primary nutrients our body needs to function (proteins and fats being the other two).  In fact, carbohydrates are the main type of nutrient we use--50-60% of the average American diet comes from carbs. Carbohydrates come in two varieties: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are made up of one group of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.  This grouping is arranged differently for various simple carbs.  The arrangement is what defines taste--sweet or sour, spicy or mild, etc. Simple carbs are various forms of sugar, like fructose, glucose, and sucrose.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are composed of several connected groups of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atom arrangements.  The more atom groups there are, the more complex the carb.  A couple examples of complex carbs are fiber and starch.

How are Carbs Used?

In a nutshell, carbohydrates are broken down by our bodies to give us energy.  This main difference between simple and complex carbs is how they are broken down by our bodies' enzymes.  Simple carbs, or sugars, are broken down quite easily.  This gives our bodies a quick rush of energy.  Complex carbs take longer for our body to process and use for energy because they are larger and, as the name suggests, more complex. Read on to discover why this information is pertinent to your diet...

Why do Carbs Matter?

The types of carbohydrates you consume are important because of the way they affect your health.  First, lets discuss the effects in terms of energy.  When you eat foods rich in simple carbs, like a donut, your body gets a quick jolt of energy, only to come crashing down soon after.  The energy boosting effect of simple carbs is short lived, leaving your body feeling tired and hungry shortly afterwards.  Part of the reason simple carbs aren't healthy is because you will only feel full for a short time, leading to more snacking (read: extra calories) later. 

Eating foods rich in complex carbs take longer for your body to break down and lead to a longer lasting energy and sense of being full.  Complex carbs (especially fiber) are essential to losing weight because they cause us to feel more full.  Feeling full longer means eating less.  In addition, complex carbs are low in fat, have fewer calories, and are significantly higher in vitamins and minerals.  Fiber, the best type of complex carb, plays a significant role in preventing many diseases and health conditions.

What kinds of foods should I eat?

To stay healthy, you simply need to maximize the amount of "good" complex carbs, while limiting your intake of simple carbs (aka sugars).  Look for foods high in fiber--the best kind are fruits and vegetables. Complex carbs can also be found in milk, beans, and whole grains such as barley, oats, wheat, rye, brown rice, kamut, spelt, amaranth, ezekiel, and the amazing superfood, quinoa. The less refined and processed a food is the better.  When a food is refined, essential nutrients are taken out, complex carbs are broken down into simple ones, and extra sweeteners and artificial ingredients are added.  Eat foods in their natural, unprocessed state.  As a general rule of thumb for grains, browner = better.  Choose brown rice over white, whole grain bread over white, etc.