In this post, we will explore the wonderful world of carbohydrates, from the different types, to how it is metabolized in the body, and finally – some basic recommendations.
Carbs have been given a bad rap, but they are not all bad! Let me start by describing the different categories or groupings. This may help you keep them straight in your head. It helps me remember.
The first two categories are free sugars and polysaccharides. Under free sugars are four sub-categories – monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and sugar alcohols. Under polysaccharides are starches and non-starches. The common theme of the polysaccharides is that they cannot be easily digested by the body.
- monosaccharides– these all contain one sugar; glucose is the form used by the body for energy; there is also fructose, galactose, etc; foods can contain these sugars, and the result of eating these is a rapid spike in blood sugar levels giving someone a sugar rush and inevitable crash; high amounts of these sugars in the diet puts a great strain on the adrenals and pancreas because the hormones they release, adrenaline and insulin respectively, are both important in the metabolism of sugar. Cane sugar falls into this category and many processed foods contain these simple sugars.
- disaccharides– these are basically two monosaccharides; these are maltose, sucrose, and lactose; all of these contain one glucose molecule with one other monosaccharide; because they are not in a fully usable form, these take a little longer to metabolize but still quickly raise blood sugar levels. These are also widely used in processed foods.
- oligosaccharides– contain 3 to 20 sugars in a chain; these seem to be food for the many bacteria we have thriving in our large intestines; some examples are beans, peas, and lentils.
- sugar alcohols– typically mono- and disaccharides containing an alcohol group; fun fact about these – diabetics may know these as the ‘sugars’ that make some sugar-free foods sugar-free. Sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol are all examples. They are not easily absorbed in the intestine and may create a bit of a laxative effect. I can personally attest to this yummy fact!
- This group is sometimes referred to as complex carbohydrates because they are much larger than the previous groups, they have a different structure, and they need different items for digestion. All of these reasons make the digestion time slower and therefore keep our blood sugars more even and give us more sustainable energy.
- starches– these larger groups are still eventually broken down into glucose for use by our cells, it will just take them longer to get there and the release will be over a period of time as well. This is all great news for our blood sugar levels, pancreas, adrenals, moods, etc.
- non-starch– there are two types in this category, which are basically the very sturdy, structural sugars which form the main components in the walls of plant cells known as cellulose and the more delicate and easily broken down hemicelluloses.
Another huge name under the carbohydrate title is fiber. The non-starch group above is the home of fiber, the plant polysaccharides that cannot be digested. It is what gives our stool bulk and our gut bacteria some food. Fiber is important for bowel function and can be easily increased by eating more plant foods.
When we think of the foods that count as carbohydrates, it can get a little confusing. The easy ones are grains like millet, buckwheat, oats, etc. and these would fall in the complex carbohydrate category if they are whole and unprocessed. Beans are also a source of complex carbohydrates as well as protein.
Fruits are an example of simple carbohydrates, but they do contain fiber and this does slow down the release of glucose. Mango, kiwi, and pears are all amazing, whole food choices.
Vegetables also contain carbohydrates. The obvious examples are starchy veggies like potatoes, winter squash, and corn. These are hardy and because of their fiber content, they will leave you satisfied for a long time. Other vegetables like broccoli and zucchini have lower levels of carbohydrates, but still provide energy for our bodies.
Carbohydrates are a great energy source for our bodies. They can be quick acting or long lasting. They help to bulk up the stool and feed our gut bacteria. We need carbohydrates in our diets and we should not fear them. Our diet needs carbohydrates, 60-80%, and this comes from whole foods like all those listed above. The key with carbohydrates is unrefined, unprocessed whole foods.
My favorite right now is squash. It is so sweet and hardy, and it can be thrown into any dish. Do you have a favorite whole food carbohydrate? Let me know. I love to hear from you!