Carbohydrates: What are they? How do we use them?

Carbohydrates are often described as the enemy, but, like for any food, moderation is key, and getting to know the different types of carbohydrates and how they work with your body specifically is very important to help you find the right balance.

What are carbohydrates? Function of carbohydrates

Carbs are the main source of energy for the brain and body; they are made of sugar molecules that naturally occur in foods, that linked together for dietary fiber and starch. This is also the main way dietitians and scientists used to divide carbohydrates, with the simple ones including sugars that naturally occur in fruits, vegetables, and milk as well as sugar (brown, white), honey, and sugars that are added to different foods while they are processed, and the complex carbohydrates being starches and fibers; nowadays classification has changed and carbohydrates are described based on their fiber content and ingredients.

Each gram of carbohydrate provides about four calories and the body breaks them down into glucose, which, as mentioned before is the primary source of energy, as glucose is sugar.

Carbohydrates are very important for the human body as they are one of the three macronutrients found in food, together with proteins and fat; proteins provide four calories per gram, while fat nine. It is very hard to find a food that is composed of only one of the three macronutrients and most of them are a combination of these, therefore it is very hard to eliminate carbohydrates, nor recommended.

What other ways can I use to understand carbohydrates better?

Where do they hide?

Carbohydrates in food can be found in many forms, such as:

  • Sugar Alcohols: This is a type of carb the body does not fully absorb; they are easy to recognize as they have a sweet taste but fewer calories than sugar. These can be found especially as an addition to foods as sweeteners with reduced calories, such as in sweets, baked goods, or chewing gums.
  • Dietary Fiber: as mentioned before, the body requires a lot of energy to digest this type of carb and they are found in food that is normally ‘recommended’ for a healthy diet, such as fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts.
  • Total sugars: the body digests and absorbs these carbohydrates very easily and they can be mainly found in food considered unhealthy, such as baked goods, desserts, and sweets, but also in dairy products, where they occur naturally.

How does the body process carbohydrates?

The three forms of carbs, sugars, starches, and fibers are processed by the body in two main ways.

Starches and sugars are broken down into glucose during digestion; glucose is also called blood sugar and it is what provides energy to the body to work and continue all of its functions.

On the other hand thou, dietary fiber can’t be easily broken down during digestion; foods that are known as ‘good carbs’ will contain the most fiber, as they take the longest to be processed before being used for energy. These are mainly found in vegetables, fruits, whole grain bread, and cereals.

It is important to remember thou that there are no good or bad foods, but rather ones that can be consumed more freely and others that require moderation.

Nutrition — How many carbohydrates should a person eat per day?

There is no straight answer for this as each country, dietician, doctor, etc. will have different recommendations; each person is completely different in age, weight, height, activity level, blood sugar control, and many other variables so it is impossible to determine a one size fits all number, be it weight or percentage.

There are three most popular examples when thinking of different recommendations offered:

  • ‘Healthy Plate’: Many dietitians use the healthy plate theory that assumes a proper meal should be composed of: 50% fruits and vegetables, 25% whole grains, and 25% proteins (meat, fish, nuts, beans, etc.)
  • The FDA (Food and Drug Administration, U.S.A.): the FDA recommends people consume 275g of carbohydrates based on a 2000 calories per day diet; this amount includes all carbohydrates including starches, sugars, added sugars, and so on.
  • Eat Well Guide’: the NHS (National Health Service, U.K.) recommends that about a third of one’s diet should be made up of starchy foods (like potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, etc.), another third of fruit and vegetables and the remaining of other foods.

These are just three examples, but they all show how different recommendations are and each person should find what works better for themselves.

A little bit of chemistry: simplified (carbohydrates structure)

Without going into the nitty-gritty of chemistry, carbohydrates can combine to form polymers or chains of carbohydrates and these can be monosaccharides, disaccharides, or polysaccharides.

  • Monosaccharides: these include a single unit of sugar such as glucose (the body’s main source of energy), galactose (mainly found in dairy products such as milk), and fructose (found in fruit and vegetables).
  • Disaccharides: these include two units of sugar joined together such as lactose (found in milk and is a combination of glucose and galactose) and sucrose (table sugar, which is made up of glucose and fructose).
  • Polysaccharides: these are chains that can be made up of hundreds (or even thousands) of monosaccharides and they act as food stores for animals and plants; for example, these can be in the form of glycogen (it stores energy in the liver and muscles), cellulose (one of the main components of plants) and starches (potatoes, grains, and rice are rich of starches).

These three can be further divided in simple and complex carbohydrates:

  • Simple carbohydrates: Monosaccharides and Disaccharides are simple carbohydrates; they provide a quick source of energy and do not satiate in the long term, therefore the person feels hungry again soon. An example of these is white bread and candies.
  • Complex carbohydrates: polysaccharides. These are contained in foods that make people feel full for longer, such as whole grains and fiber-rich foods, like whole-grain pasta, fruit, beans, and vegetables. These are more nutritious and have more health benefits than simple carbs as they are higher in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

More on: whole grain

Whole grains are a great way of introducing carbs to one’s diet as they provide vitamins, minerals, and fibers as well as energy for the body to use. Studies have shown that eating whole grains as much as possible instead of highly refined grains (such as white bread, white pasta, white rice, etc.) may help reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease and may help keep the digestive system healthy.

More on: fiber

Food that has a high fiber content is what is now considered a good carbohydrate. This is the food that will be slowly digested (will give energy to the body for a long time and will slowly release sugar in the blood) and is unprocessed (such as whole grains, beans, cereals, vegetables, and fruits).

Should I cut my carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates would be very hard to eliminate and not recommended, as they are the main source of energy for the body; without carbohydrates, the body would have to use fat and proteins to carry on its normal functions. By reducing carbohydrates the body may struggle to get enough fiber, which is highly important for the body to maintain long term health.

Healthy sources of carbs, such as starchy foods with a high content of fiber, fruit, legumes, beans, and vegetables are an extremely important source of nutrients, such as different B Vitamins and iron, and reducing them in the long term may mean a deficit of nutrients for the body that can lead to health problems.

Trying to replace as many carbohydrates with fats may increase the person’s intake of saturated fats, which in turn may raise the level of cholesterol in the blood, consequently increasing the risk of heart problems.

As some carbohydrates are glucose, and when the body is low on glucose it breaks down fat stored in the body to use as energy; this process may cause the blood to have a build-up of ketones, which results in ketosis and as a consequence to this, the person may suffer from weakness, headaches, dehydration, dizziness among others.

These are just some of the reasons why trying to eliminate carbohydrates is not recommended by most; it is though suggested to limit the amount of high-sugar foods consumed and to chose instead carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and potatoes.

Side notes:

Studies have shown diets with a low amount of carbohydrates are safe for those with type-2 diabetes and may not only assist with weight loss, but also with controlling diabetes and reducing its risks. It is always recommended in any case to consult a doctor before making any such decisions, such as following a low-carb diet.

When is the best time to eat carbohydrates?

There is little to no evidence supporting that one time is better than another; what is recommended is balance.


Carbohydrates are found in most food and when consumed as part of a balanced diet they provide minerals and vitamins that are essential for the body’s essential functions.

Should one consider eliminating or reducing the intake of carbohydrates, a doctor should always be consulted before to ensure the sustainability of the body and mind and long and short term health.

~~ Looking to learn more about your body and what you eat? Head to our Feed the Need section! Elle #carbohydrates #carbs #whatarecarbohydrates




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