What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are essential macronutrients that serve as a major energy source for the body. Derived mostly from sugar and starch, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose during digestion and provide the most desirable form of energy for the body.
Eating an adequate amount of carbohydrates each day ensures that the body has access to enough glucose to function properly. However, a diet too high in carbohydrates can upset the delicate balance of the body's blood sugar levels, resulting in fluctuations in energy and mood which can leave you feeling irritated and tired.
On the flip side, humans can survive on a diet void of carbohydrates even if this isn't desirable for energy levels and health. In the absence of carbohydrates, fat becomes the primary fuel source similar to that of followers of the Akins diet.
What are the different types of carbohydrates?
There are several ways to categorise carbohydrates, which can be useful when making informed decisions regarding their consumption – simple or complex, low glycaemic index/high glycaemic index and low fibre/high fibre (the latter two to be discussed in another article).
Simple carbohydrates refer to sugars with a simple molecular construction of one or two parts, which the body can process quickly, leading to an energy spike and sudden rush of energy. Simple carbohydrates are found naturally in foods such as fruits, milk, and milk products, while they are also found in processed and refined sugars such as sweets, table sugar, syrups, and soft drinks.
Unfortunately, refined sugar is a common source of simple carbohydrates in the modern diet and can be found in many processed, packaged and fast foods where it is used as a flavour enhancer and to satisfy our palates for sweet foods. Simple carbohydrates from added sugar have little or no nutritional value and are often described as empty calories (as most of the nutrients are removed in the refining process). Over consumption of simple carbohydrates increase the likelihood of eating in a calorie surplus which can lead to weight gain and obesity.
Complex carbohydrates in contrast, refer to sugars with a complex molecular structure of three or more parts. Due to the complex structure of these molecules, it takes the body longer to break them down to produce the glucose it needs for energy, which in turn means less insulin is necessary to transport the blood sugar into cells. Foods rich in complex carbohydrates also contain valuable vitamins, minerals and fibre which are vital to overall health and wellbeing.
Some of the health benefits of consuming complex carbohydrates include:
Fuelling the brain for mental activity
Increasing the production of serotonin
Improving mind power and mental concentration
A potential mood booster
Aiding nervous system function, and many others.
As foods containing complex carbohydrates are processed more slowly by the body, they can provide sustained energy levels over longer periods of time than simple carbohydrates. They are also generally more nutrient dense.
Some simple carbohydrates do provide nutritional benefits – notably fruits, milk and other dairy products. However, most fruits contain good levels of fibre, vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants, while milk and dairy products are good sources of protein and calcium. It is widely believed that both fruit and dairy products are important to a well-balanced healthy diet.
Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of the different types of carbohydrates, and how you can and should include them as part of a healthy, balanced diet.