Carbohydrates have a bad reputation, despite the fact that they are a macronutrient and one of the body’s primary sources of energy. Many weight loss diets often discourage the consumption of carbohydrates, but they aren’t so bad if you choose the right ones. As it turns out, you don’t need to avoid them; rather, you need to be able to distinguish the simple carbs from the complex carbs.
What Are Carbohydrates?
As one of the three primary macronutrients, carbohydrates (or carbs if you’re cool), are broken down into sugar (glucose). The body then uses this sugar as its primary source of fuel. You can run into trouble if there is too much glucose in the body, because you have more fuel than the body can burn, often resulting in fat storage in the abdominal area. Scientifically, carbs are comprised of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms, and are referred to as saccharides, or sugar. Carbohydrates can be classified by the following depending on the number of saccharides present in the structure:
- Mono: one saccharide
- Di: two saccharides
- Oligo: 3-20 saccharides
- Poly: many saccharides
Monosaccharides and disaccharides are considered to be simple carbohydrates, while oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are complex carbohydrates. We often associate carbohydrates with foods like bread, cookies, or pasta, but they also exist in foods like nuts, legumes, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and whole grains. Let’s explore what differentiates simple carbs from complex carbs below.
Simple carbohydrates can be thought of as simple nutrition, for example, foods that are not nutritionally dense. These foods include baked treats, soda, fruit juice concentrate, breakfast cereals, processed bread, and candy. Simple carbs have simple structures that are made up of shorter sugar chains, meaning that they are quickly digested and absorbed to give the body a quick burst of energy. Blood sugar rises and then you can experience a crash after consuming too much.
Not all simple carbs come from refined and processed foods, though. Some simple carbs can be found in certain fruits and vegetables. The benefit of the simple carbs found in whole foods is that they are accompanied by fiber, vitamins, and minerals, all of which slow the release of sugar and provide nutritional value. The problem is that most people consume simple carbs from processed and refined foods, which are devoid of nutrients and rich in added sugars, dyes, and flavors.
One must understand that even the most complex carbs are digested into monosaccharides (simple sugars) before the body absorbs them. The more complex the carbs, however, the higher fiber content they have, and this means that the sugars have a slower release to prevent blood sugar levels from spiking. The primary sources of complex carbohydrates are fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, all of which are accompanied by some combination of fiber, potassium magnesium, protein, iron, and different vitamins.
Just as simple carbs are found in whole foods, so are complex carbs found in refined or processed foods. Instead of fixating on the type of carbohydrate, it is better to concern yourself with the vitamin, fiber, and mineral content of the foods you are eating. These are always going to be whole foods that are not processed or refined. Leave the packaged foods and simple foods that have zero nutritional value by the wayside and balance you blood sugar, digestion, and weight by focusing on real foods.