Carbohydrates are molecules that have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. In nutrition, "carbohydrates" refers to one of the three macronutrients. The other two are protein and fat.
Carbohydrates have three main categories:
- Sugars. These are sweet, short-chain carbohydrates found in foods. Examples are glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose.
- Starch. They are long chains of glucose molecules, which are eventually broken down into glucose in the digestive system.
- Fiber. Humans cannot digest fiber, but the bacteria in the digestive system can use some of them. It is also important to eat fiber for your overall health.
One of the main purposes of carbohydrates in our diet is to provide fuel to our bodies.
Most carbohydrates are broken down or converted into glucose, which can be used as energy. Carbohydrates can also be converted into fat (stored energy) for later use.
Fiber is an exception. It does not provide energy directly but it feeds the friendly bacteria in the digestive system. These bacteria can use the fiber to produce fatty acids that some of our cells can use as energy.
Sugar alcohols also classified as carbohydrates and tastes sweet but usually does not provide many calories.
Unrefined to refined carbohydrates
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. There are many different types of carbohydrate-containing foods, and they can vary in health effects.
Carbohydrates are sometimes called simple / complex or unrefined / refined.
Whole carbohydrates are unprocessed and contain the fiber that is naturally present in food. Refined carbohydrates have been processed and have the natural fiber removed or replaced.
Examples of unrefined carbohydrates:
- whole grains
- sugary drinks
- White bread
- Other articles made of white flour
Many studies show that refined carbohydrate consumption is associated with health conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Refined carbohydrates tend to cause peaks in blood sugar levels, leading to a subsequent "crash" that can trigger hunger and lead to food cravings.
Refined carbohydrates usually also lack essential nutrients. They are "empty" calories. There are also added sugars, which should be limited as they are linked to all types of chronic diseases.
Not all carbohydrate foods should be ignored due to the negative health effects.
Eat the right carbs
Food sources with carbohydrates are full of nutrients and fiber and do not cause the same highs and lows in blood sugar levels.
Many high-fiber carbohydrate studies, including vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains, show that eating them is linked to improved metabolic health and a lower risk of disease. Eating the right carbs is something we really recommend!