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Carbohydrates

“It’s not about low carbs, it’s about low crap.” – Anonymous

Carbohydrates are the most controversial nutrients of our time.

They provide the energy that fuels all of our vital functions, yet we keep hearing that we should give them up.

So what to do?

Simple. When it comes to carbs, the golden rule to remember is quality over quantity.  

Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash
Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

What are Carbohydrates?

  • Carbohydrates (carbs) are also known as saccharides. 
  • Sugars, starches, and fiber are the major sources of carbs in our diet.

Why Do We Need Carbohydrates?

  • Carbs are our main sources of energy, which we need for metabolism and vital functions like moving, breathing, and thinking
  • Carbohydrates also provide us with long-term fuel: they can be converted into fats and stored as an energy reserve.

Carb chemistry: a little background

You can think of carbohydrates as a chain of sugars linked together.

Depending on the number of sugar units and the way they’re interlinked, carbs are classified into different categories:

1 sugar unit: Monosaccharides

These are the simplest of all carbs and they’re the MAIN source of energy for our bodies.

They also serve as the building blocks for more complex carbohydrates.

Examples of monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, and galactose.

After we eat them, all monosaccharides are converted to GLUCOSE by our liver. Our cells later use this glucose to create energy.

2 sugar units: disaccharides

In this group, we have some famous carbs like sucrose, or common table sugar, which is made of 1 unit of glucose + 1 unit of fructose.

Other examples are lactose (glucose-galactose) and maltose (glucose-glucose). 

During digestion, we break down these 2-unit sugars into 1-unit sugars. Then we convert them all to glucose in the liver, to generate energy.

3 to 9 sugar units: oligosaccharides

Dietary oligosaccharides are part of what is known as soluble dietary fiber and are extremely beneficial to our digestive health. 

These bigger sugar chains are more difficult to digest down into 1-unit sugars.

10 or more sugar units: polysaccharides.

In this group, commonly known as complex carbohydrates, we find starch and dietary fiber

Both starch and fiber are long chains of sugars units linked together. However, the “shape” of the chains is different because the sugar units are linked differently.

Starch chains are easily digestible to humans and therefore, release glucose quickly into our bloodstream.

Fiber chains, on the other hand, are much more complex and NOT easy to break down during digestion. Some can’t be broken at all!

Prefer to watch instead? Check this 5-min TED-ed video about carbohydrates

TED-Ed: How do carbohydrates impact your health?

How do carbs provide energy?

What happens to carbs after we eat them? Here’s a brief summary!

1. Digestion.
When cabs enter our digestive system, we break them down into 1-unit sugars like glucose and fructose.

Only these single sugars can cross from the gut into our bloodstream.

2. Sugar absorption.
When single sugars enter our blood, our blood sugar rises.

The pancreas then produces insulin to help our cells absorb the glucose that’s “swimming around”.

As cells absorb the free glucose, our blood sugar begins to drop.

3. Energy production.
Our cells use the glucose they absorbed to produce energy.

We then use that energy to carry out our daily functions or store it for future use.

The GOOD carbs: whole carbohydrates

The carbs in food come in two types: 

  • Simple carbs: 1 or 2 sugar units.
  • Complex carbs: 3 or more sugar units.

Complex carbs are big molecules that we can’t digest right away to obtain energy. This is especially true for dietary fiber.

Because complex carbs are found in unprocessed whole foods where the fiber has NOT been removed (whole grains, fruits, veggies), they are known as whole carbs.

Thanks to their big complex structures, whole carbs are very healthy. The benefits include:

  • Lower risk of diabetes.
    Since we can’t digest them easily, whole carbs provide a controlled release of sugar over time.
  • Lower risk of heart disease.
    Some types of fiber even trap cholesterol in our intestine, preventing it from reaching our blood [1]. That’s good news for our arteries and heart.

The BAD carbs: refined carbohydrates

Simple carbs are what we normally call sugars

They’re much smaller than complex carbs, and we CAN digest them easily to obtain energy. 

Now, simple carbs can be divided into 2 groups: 

  • Natural.
    These are the sugars naturally present in whole foods like fruits, milk, and vegetables
  • Refined.
    These are the sugars present in processed foods like confectionery and soft drinks. 

Both natural and refined carbs are easily digestible. But natural sugars are surrounded by fiber and other whole carbs that make their digestion slower.

Refined carbs, on the other hand, release fast loads of glucose and cause sudden blood sugar spikes. The excessive intake of refined carbs is therefore linked to diabetes, obesity, and other serious conditions.

The negative effects of refined carbs on our health include:

  • Blood sugar roller coaster.
    Refined carbs are quickly digested into glucose, which causes sharp spikes and drops in our blood sugar.
  • Higher risk of weight gain and obesity [2].
    Sharp drops in blood sugar make us hungry and prompt us to eat more.
  • Higher risk of type-2 diabetes.
    The insulin that we produce to regulate our sugar levels eventually can’t keep up with the sudden ups and downs [3]. 
  • Higher risk of heart disease.
    Refined carbs increase our fat production. This is because when we consume too much energy (calories), carbs are converted into fat to create energy reserves [4].
  • Higher risk of certain cancers [5].

Sources of Good Carbs and Bad Carbs

When it comes to carbohydrates, always choose quality over quantity. There’s no need to count, as long as you’re choosing the right carbs. 

Whole carbs = good
Refined carbs = bad

Bad carbs are present in highly-processed foods made with refined grains and added sugars. In other words, junk food.

  • Foods made of refined grains: white rice, white bread, instant oat porridge, rice porridge (congee), pasta, and noodles made of refined flour.
  • Foods with tons of added sugars: soft drinks, cakes, cookies, pies, sweets, candies, sugary breakfast cereals, flavored dairy products (yogurt, milk, ice cream). 

Warning:
Don’t let the “Unrefined sugar” fool you.
 

Unrefined sugars are still added sugars and they are as bad as white sugar.

Honey, coconut sugar, molasses, brown sugar, syrups (corn, maple, agave, rice, etc), fructose, and maltose, they’re ALL added sugars and must be consumed with caution.

On the other hand, good carbs are present in unprocessed foods. Examples include:

  • Whole grains: rolled oats, brown rice, whole-grain bread and pasta, barley
  • Nuts: almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios
  • Legumes: peanuts, lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans (incl. soybeans) 
  • Seeds: sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, flax, poppy, chia
  • Most fruits and veggies

Remember:
You don’t have to give up your favorite bad carbs entirely

Just eat them less frequently and in smaller portions. 

And mix in more good carbs to reduce their unhealthy effects! Bad carbs are less harmful when consumed together with good carbs

Whole grains vs refined grains

Whole grains are healthier than refined grains, because they keep their good, whole carbs.

Have a look:

Differences between whole grains and refined grains. (Photo credit: Harvard University)

Whole grains still have their nutritious bran and germ intact.

Refined grains, on the other hand, are known as empty calories.

They used to be whole grains but have been heavily processed and stripped of their fiber and nutrients. Now their starchy core is exposed and easy to digest.

Refined grains hold little to no nutritional value and should be avoided.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

To further guide our healthy food choices, researchers have developed some tools to help us pick foods that are less “shocking” to our blood sugar levels.

The Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL) are two of them.

In short, the Glycemic Index is a measure of how quickly a food raises our blood sugar levels.

The Glycemic Load tells us how quickly a portion of that food raises our blood sugar levels. 

These 2 metrics are very handy when it comes to making healthy food choices, especially for those with diabetic complications.

Read more about Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load in our detailed post.

How Many Carbs Do You Need Per Day?

We can’t stress this enough: focus on the quality of your carbs rather than the quantity

An average, healthy adult needs around 250 g to 325 g of carbohydrates per day, assuming daily energy requirements of 2,000 kcal.

However, calculations to meet these requirements are pointless, not to mention rather impossible.

Instead,  learn to identify the good carbs from the badIt’s very easy:

Heavily-processed foods = bad carbs
Wholesome unprocessed foods = good carbs

Carb amounts in common foods

  • 100 g of tomato: 3.9 g
  • 100 g of broccoli, boiled: 7 g
  • 100 g of oatmeal: 12 g
  • 100 g of apple: 14 g
  • 100 g of peanuts: 16 g
  • 100 of grapes: 17 g
  • 100 g of lentils, boiled: 20 g
  • 100 g of banana: 23 g 
  • 100 g of white rice, steamed: 34 g
  • 100 g of white bread: 49 g
  • 100 g of Milo® drink: 64.5 g
  • 100 g of instant oatmeal: 67 g
  • 100 g of Oreo cookies: 69 g
  • 100 g of honey: 82 g
  • 100 g of corn flakes: 84 g

Curious about the number of carbs in other foods? Look it up in reliable sources like the USDA database

If you still want to count, we suggest you calculate your calorie needs instead. However, we’ll tell you the same thing about your calories: choose quality over quantity.

Focusing on one nutrient alone isn’t a good approach to healthy eating.

Learn to make informed and healthy food choices with our Quick guide to food labels

Do you need to have a low-carb diet?

  • Nope, unless your medical doctor advises you to do so. 
  • If you watch what you eat and exercise regularly, you don’t need any special diet to help you stay healthy. 
  • You don’t even have to give up your favorite junk foods; as long as you consume them in moderation, bon appetit my friend!
  • We don’t believe in one-size-fits-all kind of fad diets.
    Instead, we look for the dietary suggestions of long-term, multi-country, and most importantly peer-reviewed nutrition studies, to offer you optimal healthy options.

Learn more about what we do here at Grain Forest.

Take-home Messages

  • Eat more whole carbs, e.g. whole grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and beans.
  • Eat less refined carbs, e.g. soft drinks, fast food, processed snacks, and refined breakfast cereals.
  • Focus more on the quality of your carbohydrates than on the quantity.
  • Watching the type of carbs in your food is important, but do not forget about other nutrients, such as fats, proteins, and vitamins

Looking for healthy food alternatives, rich in whole carbs and other nutrients?

Check our Grain Forest recommendations. We’ve got a range of wholesome options for you and your loved ones!

Healthy recommendations for you

  1. Surampudi P, Enkhmaa B, Anuurad E, Berglund L. Lipid Lowering with Soluble Dietary Fiber. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2016; 18:75.
  2. Maki KC, Rains TM, Kaden VN, Raneri KR, Davidson MH. Effects of a reduced-glycemic-load diet on body weight, body composition, and cardiovascular disease risk markers in overweight and obese adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 85:724-34.
  3. de Munter JSL, Hu FB, Spiegelman D, Franz M, van Dam RM. Whole grain, bran, and germ intake and risk of type 2 diabetes: a prospective cohort study and systematic review. PLoS Med. 2007;4: e261.
  4. Halton TL, Willett WC, Liu S, Manson JE, Albert CM, Rexrode K, et al. Low-carbohydrate-diet score and the risk of coronary heart disease in women. N Engl J Med. 2006;355: 1991–2002.
  5. Higginbotham S, Zhang Z-F, Lee I-M, Cook NR, Giovannucci E, Buring JE, et al. Dietary glycemic load and risk of colorectal cancer in the Women’s Health Study. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2004;96: 229–233.

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