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An Overview of Carbohydrates

Can you spot which one of these food items is a ‘carb’?

If you picked any one of them you are correct!

If you are confused as to why that is the case then some background information regarding carbohydrates is needed.

What is a Carbohydrate?

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Do not fear; the above 3 food items contain the dreaded ‘carbs’. 

Carbohydrates (also called ‘saccharides‘) are a ‘macronutrient‘ along with proteins and fats. They are one of the ways the body gains energy to use and are essential for a healthy diet and body since the body is incapable of producing them on its own.

Appearing as sugars, starches, and fibers found in many natural and artificial food items it is easy to see how they can be mislabeled as bad for you – some people go as far as to eliminate it from their diet not knowing what it is. 

Taking a closer look at it on the chemical level it is made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Different combinations of these 3 building blocks form the different carbohydrate types, and they are:

Aldehydes: Double-bonded carbon and oxygen atoms with a single hydrogen atom.

Ketones: Double-bonded carbon and oxygen atoms with two hydrogen atoms.

These two in different combinations form different types of carbohydrates and these are:

 Monosaccharides: The smallest unit. Found as glucose (an energy source for cells), galactose (found in milk and dairy products), and fructose (found in fruits and vegetables).

 Disaccharides: Formed of two Monosaccharides they are found as lactose (glucose with galactose, found in milk), sucrose (the result of photosynthesis in plants), and maltose (malt sugar, two glucose molecules).

Polysaccharides: Defined as two or more Monosaccharides in a chain these play the role of food storage for animals and plants as well as serving other purposes. The chains can have the appearance of branches or a line. Examples of polysaccharides include Glycogen, Starches, and Cellulose.

For most people this information will fly over their heads. That is why, instead of hearing all of these terms, you may heard of the terms ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ carbohydrates.

Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

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Still with us? The above food items have carbs in them as well!

An important distinction to make between what’s good and not for you carb-wise is if it is a simple or complex carbohydrate. 

Generally speaking, simple carbohydrates are broken down by the body quickly giving you a rapid energy boost, do not have much nutrients, vitamins, or minerals, and can make you feel sluggish and hungry after a short while. Examples of food items where simple carbohydrates are found are in white bread, processed snacks, soda, and fruit juices.

Complex carbohydrates usually have other essential vitamins, minerals, or nutrients coupled with them (especially starch), release energy slowly, and keeps you feeling fuller for longer. Examples include fruits and vegetables, fish, unprocessed bran, oats, and barley, whole grains, and brown rice.

In general try to keep consumption of simple carbohydrates to a minimum while maximizing foods that have complex carbs. While you can live without never having touched a complex carbohydrate you will suffer dearly for it. For example, your brain cannot burn fats all by itself, instead requiring the use of glucose as the sole energy source – without it the communication and connections within the brain decay resulting in lesser brain capacity and performance.

But what those carb-reducing snacks and weight-loss alternatives that claim to remove that extra weight off your stomach? They too are filled with simple carbohydrates as well as artificial colors, additives, and flavors – you might as well consider them junk food and avoid them.

With all the above in mind you might be able to start to see where the confusion comes from and many myths have spawned due to it. One of the biggest myths is that consumption of carbs will lead to diabetes. 

Diabetes and Carbs

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Can you tell which has good carbs and which one has bad carbs?

Diabetes and carbohydrates go hand-in-hand for some people. But where did this come from? For this we need to look at how carbohydrates is handled by the body and what happens when too much glucose is in the blood.

When you consume carbohydrates an amount of it is turned into glucose which is then transferred into the blood raising blood sugar levels. In response to this insulin is released by the liver for cells to use the glucose as either energy or storage. With the cells consuming the glucose the blood sugar levels drop to a point, and glucagon is released from the pancreas that raises blood sugar levels. The glucagon releases glycogen (a sugar) stored in the liver to raise blood sugar levels.

With this in mind imagine large doses of glucose flooding the blood and the liver and pancreas working hard to maintain optimal blood sugar levels. Another way to think of it is highway traffic but instead of on the highway its in a random suburban street. Too much of this can damage the liver and pancreas resulting in what is known as ‘metabolic syndrome’ also known as “insulin resistance”.

High blood pressure (hypertension), high blood fat levels, weight gain, and a range of other chronic diseases are what you get if you follow this diet pathway. And the scary thing is that the symptoms may appear years after your systems are damaged. 

So What Do I Do?

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All of these have carbs.

If you’ve scrolled through this wall of text just to see what lies at the conclusion of it all then at least remember this – 

  • Complex Carbohydrates are important for daily functioning, not simple carbs
  • Try to avoid as much processed snacks, white bread, and foods and shakes touting to burn fat fast
  • Have a balanced diet that allows your body to perform optimally and get adequate sleep and exercise.

Sources

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