Bad Guys? Not Really
Carbohydrates have long been considered the bad guys in the realm of nutrition. However, they are our body’s favorite source of energy. Several metabolic processes break carbs down into glucose, which is the body’s primary fuel, used by all cells including the brain, muscles, and organs. Within the cell, an organelle called mitochondria metabolizes glucose to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that powers cellular processes.
Although linked to weight gain and diabetes, it’s important to know that not all carbohydrates are the same. Similar to the other two macronutrients – proteins and fats, the type and quality of the carbs we consume make a huge difference in how they impact our health. So, let’s delve deep and uncover the facts behind carbohydrate myths and truths.
What Are They?
Carbohydrates are molecules of living organisms consisting of carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O) atoms combined, usually with a hydrogen–oxygen atom ratio of 2:1. Their general empirical formula is CmH2nOn – where m may or may not be different from n. However, not all carbohydrates conform to this precise stoichiometric definition, nor are all chemicals that do conform to this definition automatically classified as carbohydrates.
The term carbohydrate is more commonly used in biochemistry, or the study of chemical processes within and relating to living organisms. Biochemistry focuses on how biological molecules give rise to processes that occur within living cells and between them. This discipline helps us understand the functioning of tissues and organs as well as organism structure.
In biochemistry, carbohydrate is the synonym of saccharide – which is divided into four groups: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. The first two groups encompass the smallest carbs in molecular weight. Those are formed by one or two molecules of saccharide and are commonly referred to as sugars. Yes, sugar is a carbohydrate. While the scientific nomenclature of carbohydrates is complex, sugar’s common names very often end in the suffix -ose, like fructose (fruit sugar), sucrose (cane or beet sugar), lactose (milk sugar), etc.
Oligo and polysaccharides are the most abundant carbohydrates found in food. They are long polymeric chains composed of three or more monosaccharide units bound together. All carbohydrates perform numerous roles in living organisms. Polysaccharides, for instance, serve as an energy store and as structural components. Cellulose, found in the cell walls of all plants is a famous polysaccharide – one of the main components of insoluble dietary fiber. Although not digestible by humans, both cellulose and insoluble fiber are good prebiotics. Both feed the microbiome of the large intestines, where they are metabolized by gut bacteria to yield short-chain fatty acids.
Feeding our microbiome is very important as it’s where 70% of our immune system is located. That’s why the consumption of complex carbohydrates is vital for our health. The gut bacteria break down fiber by fermentation and synthesize vital nutrients, like B vitamins and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Butyrate, one important SCFA, serves as the primary energy source for cells lining the colon. A strong gut barrier promotes immune regulation and reduces the risk of inflammation-related diseases.
In food science and informal contexts, the term “carbohydrate” often means any food that is particularly rich in starch or sugar. Starch is a polysaccharide abundant in cereals (wheat, corn, rice), potatoes, and processed food based on cereal flour, such as bread, pizza, or pasta. Sugars appear in the human diet mainly as sucrose (aka table sugar), lactose, glucose, and fructose. This informality is sometimes confusing as the chemical structures and digestibility in humans are completely different from one type of carb to the other.
It’s Not That Simple
In nutrition, carbohydrates are didactically separated into two major groups simple and complex depending on their size. Mono and disaccharides are considered simple carbohydrates as they are the smallest ones. Poly and Oligosaccharides are considered complex due to their bigger size and weight. The main point of this differentiation is how digestible those carbs are for humans. Simple carbs are small and easy to digest. This means they hit the bloodstream very quickly, giving you a spike in blood sugar. On the other hand, complex carbs are long, heavy chains that the body takes longer to digest. Which makes them better options for glycemic control.
Unveiling Some Truths
There are lots of myths about carbs. Here are some that I think are the most relevant for you to understand.
Myth: Carbohydrates Are Bad for You
Truth: Excess consumption of simple carbohydrates may cause health issues. We’ve seen that carbs are the body’s primary source of energy. So, assuming they’re all bad for our health is just wrong. The key lies in choosing the right types of carbohydrates. Complex ones found in whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are actually pretty good. Besides being rich in fiber (good prebiotic) they also contain vitamins, and minerals, supporting overall health and well-being.
Myth: Carbohydrates Cause Weight Gain
Truth: Excess consumption of simple carbohydrates may cause weight gain. Refined carbohydrates, the ones that have already been broken down by manufacturing processes in food industries, are very detrimental to our health. They not only contain just simple sugars but also lots of other chemicals added during the refining process. Some examples are sugary snacks, breakfast cereal, crackers, and white bread. They all may contribute to weight gain and other health issues.
However, when consumed in moderation and as part of a balanced diet, complex carbohydrates can actually aid in weight management. Fiber-rich carbs promote satiety, helping you feel fuller for longer and potentially reducing overall calorie intake.
Myth: Low-carb diets Are The Way to Lose Weight
Truth: While low-carb diets can be effective for some individuals in the short term, they are not the only path to weight loss. Sustainable weight management is about creating a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrients, including complex carbohydrates. Restricting carbs excessively, especially fiber-rich ones, can damage the microbiome and then lead to nutrient deficiencies. Which most likely cannot be sustainable in the long run.
Myth: Carbohydrates Raise Blood Sugar
Truth: The glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly a particular carbohydrate source raises blood sugar. Simple carbohydrates are high-GI foods and therefore cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains and legumes are low-GI foods because they are slowly digested, leading to more stable blood sugar levels. Incorporating these low-GI carbs into your diet can help regulate blood sugar and support overall health.
Myth: Carbohydrates Cause Inflammation
Truth: The root cause of chronic inflammation lies in the gut. When our microbiome is out of balance, the gut lining becomes exposed and can be easily damaged by environmental factors like medication, alcohol, stress, or toxins – causing a condition known as leaky gut. With this condition in place, pathogenic bacteria or even partially digested food molecules can enter the bloodstream through the gap in the gut lining.
Whole, unprocessed carbohydrates are often anti-inflammatory because they feed the good bacteria in the gut fostering good, thick gut line protection. They also contain antioxidants and phytonutrients that support immune function so to efficiently fight inflammation.
Myth: Athletes Should Avoid Carbohydrates
Truth: Carbohydrates are the body’s favorite energy source, especially for active individuals and athletes. carb-rich foods provide readily available energy for physical activity and help replenish glycogen stores in muscles post-exercise. For optimal performance and recovery, athletes should include whole complex carbohydrates as part of their balanced diet.
Carbs to Enjoy Guilt-free
Here is just a list of a few different nutrient-dense, fiber-rich, good-quality high-carbohydrate foods you should eat daily. Most of them are also good sources of protein, minerals, and vitamins. There is no way to go wrong with whole, nature-made foods.
Whole Grains: quinoa, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, rye, millet, farro, and oats.
Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, white beans, green peas, and split peas.
Starchy Vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash, beets, and corn.
Fruits and Non-starch Vegetables: apples, bananas, berries, oranges, grapefruit, peaches, mangos, and carrots.
Carbs to Limit or Avoid
Here is a list of simple carbohydrate-rich foods you should limit or avoid for better health.
Refined grain products: white rice, white bread, regular pasta, and snack foods like crackers made with refined wheat flour.
Refined sugar: table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and all processed foods that contain added sugars – candy, syrup, juices, pop, cookies, sweet treats, and pretty much everything you buy in a can, jug, or box.
In conclusion, carbohydrates are not to be vilified or demonized. Rather, it’s essential to distinguish between the good and the bad. By focusing on incorporating whole, unprocessed complex carbs into a balanced diet, we can enjoy the benefits of sustained energy, improved digestion, better immunity, and overall well-being.
Hope this helps you make good choices!
After all: Good is what makes you feel well!
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