Demystifying carbohydrates

Most popular diets such as the ketogenic diet, Atkins diet, and Whole30 encourage dieters to limit or exclude carbohydrates.  If avoiding carbohydrates makes you feel “hangry” and deprived, you’re not alone. As Nancy Clark, RD once said “food restriction creates food interest.” Restricting carbohydrates doesn’t result in long-term weight loss, so why are we so afraid of this delicious macronutrient? In fact, an article published this month followed 15,000 adults for 25 years and the results offer more evidence that low-carb isn’t the healthiest way to eat. The study states that consistent consumption of carbohydrates throughout the day promotes overall health. So let’s take a moment today to demystify the infamous carbohydrate.

What are carbohydrates?

There are a lot of reasons why our brain tells us food tastes good. Seasonings, cooking methods, quality/freshness of foods, visual appeal, and sugar content all play a role in our appreciation for food. One of the most controversial components of food that contributes to taste bud satisfaction is sugar content.

Naturally, when we think of sugar, we think of granulated sugar that is in our tea, cookies, and cakes which we associate with the splurge part of our day. Yes, granulated sugar is a type of sugar but there are also other forms of sugar that are found in fruits, milks, and vegetables.

All forms of sugar are carbohydrates or “carbs”. People, animals, insects, and plants all use carbohydrates for energy and will store the nutrient for future use.

Plants store carbohydrates in the form of starch and fiber. Starch acts as the plants’ reserve energy for when it grows or produces fruit, while fiber is used to maintain the structure of the plant. When we eat plant based foods, we are eating their stored starch and fiber which contributes to our overall carbohydrate intake for the day.

Fiber is poorly digested by humans, making it a perfect tool to grab ahold of various waste products in the gut and move them out of our body. Consumption of foods with high fiber content has been linked to improving cholesterol, blood pressure, and gastrointestinal disorders in various individuals. Starchy foods often have a greater concentration of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins B, E and iron.

What happens after we eat carbohydrates?

Copyright Megrette Fletcher

When we eat carbohydrates, the digestion process begins in our mouth and the process is completed in our stomach and intestines. The final product of carbohydrate digestion is glucose. Glucose is the simplest form of sugar.

Glucose is the preferred energy source of our body and is required for normal physiological function. In fact, our brain, nervous system, and blood cells absolutely depend on using glucose for energy which is why our body has some on reserve.

Our bodies will use some of the glucose immediately and store the rest as glycogen which is found in our muscles and liver. Glucose levels in the blood are often referred to as blood sugar. Our body must regulate the amount of sugar in our blood to prevent damage to our organs. It does this by excreting a hormone called insulin from the pancreas once the digestion of carbohydrates begins.

If our blood sugar drops below our body’s preferred level, glycogen is broken down. For example, when you exercise, your body will begin to use the sugar in your blood immediately. To prevent our blood sugar from dropping too low, glycogen will be broken down to replenish the sugar in the blood. Eating carbs with each meal is important in order to replenish the body’s glycogen stores after activity.

Complex vs simple carbohydrates

Complex and simple carbohydrates are two groups of carbohydrates that tell us how hard our body will have to work to break down a carb. In most cases, we want our body to work for the energy in food. This will help to keep your blood sugar at a healthy, consistent level throughout the day.

Complex carbs are made up of long chains of sugar molecules which takes the body time to break down. This classification of carbs usually contains fiber and starch. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, oats, barley, and legumes. Simple carbohydrates have much shorter chains of sugar molecules, making the digestion time shorter. Simple carbs are found in fruits, milk products, and refined foods. Both types of carbohydrates are beneficial to our body however they can affect blood sugar in different ways.

Complex carbohydrates will cause blood sugar to rise and fall at a steady rate due to the time that it takes for our body to fully digest these foods. Simple carbohydrates cause our blood sugar to spike (often above a healthy range) and quickly fall. To maintain our blood sugar within a healthy range, it is always important to eat a fat or protein (to slow digestion) with a carbohydrate to promote steady blood sugar throughout the day.

Copyright Megrette Fletcher

For example, if an individual has waffles with syrup for breakfast in the morning, their blood sugar may look more like the dotted line in the figure above. The dotted line spikes high and never comes down within a healthy range for the rest of the day. If that individual chose to eat one waffle topped with peanut butter instead of syrup, their blood sugar may look more like the solid line. The peanut butter helps to anchor their blood sugar within a healthy range. Carbohydrate heavy meals (waffles with syrup) will always spike blood sugar.

Here is a comparison list of complex and simple carbohydrates:

Both complex and simple carbohydrates are required in our diet. The exclusion of one or both of the carbs can promote various vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Although, supplements can be taken to achieve adequate levels of these nutrients, our body responds best to the naturally occurring form of these nutrients found in food. 

Where do we get carbohydrates?

During my time as a dietetic intern, I had the opportunity to sit in on countless nutrition counseling sessions. The most common comment individuals made was that they were surprised that milk and fruit are considered carbohydrates.

When talking about carbohydrates, it is natural for your mind to go straight to bread and pasta because that is what was drilled into our minds in high school health class when looking at the food pyramid. Carbohydrates are found in many foods that may not be obvious to us.

These can include milk, fruit, syrups, sugar, honey, molasses, raw sugar, and agave. The more obvious foods may be beans and legumes (ie. black beans, lentils, pintos), grains, pastas, cereals, rice, peas, corn, crackers, and potatoes.

The National Association of Diabetes (ADA) published a helpful article in 2015 that provides a helpful breakdown of what foods are considered carbohydrates.

Deprivation of Carbohydrates

When our body is deprived of carbohydrates it can greatly affect our mood and how we physically feel.  Avoiding carbs or decreasing the amount that we eat, can cause hypoglycemia.

Hypoglycemia is a million-dollar word that truly means low blood sugar. The idea of low blood sugar can understandably be off your radar if you are not diabetic; however, it is a condition that affects everyone.

Symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) may include:

  • Mood Swings, “Hangry”
  • Nauseous
  • Light-headedness
  • Nervous feeling
  • Clammy/sweaty/pale
  • Shaky
  • Lethargic

How Much Carbohydrate Should I Eat?

If your goal is to achieve overall wellness, remember to include all foods in your diet, work towards eating a healthy plate filled with plenty of produce, and learn how to eat intuitively. The goal is to take on a sustainable lifestyle change.

All foods can fit into your daily diet and fitting carbohydrates into your daily routine can help you feel energized and keep cravings at bay.

About the Author

Lindsay Crowder, MS

Lindsay Crowder, MS

Dietetic Intern

My name is Lindsay Crowder and I am a dietetic intern with Keith and Associates. I received my Bachelor of Science from Harding University in Arkansas and graduated from Texas State University with my Master of Human Nutrition in December of 2017. I became interested in dietetics when I discovered the hold food has on individuals. My long-term goal is to work with individuals in an outpatient setting and partner with them while they journey towards overall wellness.