What Are Carbs?

In recent years, low carbohydrate (or carbs) diets have gained plenty of fanfare, but the debate over whether or not they are healthy rages on. So, what are carbs exactly, and how do they work? For that matter, why has there been so much concern about carbs in recent years? To truly understand carbohydrates, it is important to have a basic understanding of chemistry.

Carbohydrates provide the primary source of energy for the body. Your body has the option of using the carbs immediately or converting them into fat to store for later use. Carbohydrates or saccharides are sugars and starches that are responsible for providing energy to humans and animals. There are two types of carbohydrates, monosaccharides and polysaccharides.

blueberries imageMonosaccharides, also referred to as simple carbs, are the easiest for the body to digest and are commonly found in dairy products and fruits. As the result of food processing today, they can also be found in white bread, white sugar, and pastas.

Polysaccharides, or complex carbs, are typically found in brown rice, legumes, whole grain breads and pastas, and vegetables. The refining process used today eliminates a portion of the grain’s nutrients and fiber. As a result, eating a whole grain cereal, such as oatmeal, even though it is relatively high in carbohydrates, provides you with longer lasting energy and fills you up longer than sugary cereal because of the way the body uses and processes carbohydrates.

After carbs have been eaten, the liver becomes responsible for their digestion by breaking them down into simple sugars or glucose. This causes the stimulation of insulin production in the pancreas. Insulin is responsible for converting sugar into energy by infiltrating the blood cells of the body. Simple and complex carbs impact insulin production in different ways.

Insulin levels rise more quickly and “spike” faster when simple carbs are being digested. In addition, they are used up more quickly for energy. This is why eating a sugary snack when you need a quick burst of energy results in your energy levels crashing quickly after the “sugar high” ends. However, it takes longer to digest complex carbs, which results in longer lasting energy and a decreased reaction of insulin in the body. That’s why it’s generally better to choose low carbohydrate desserts.

When the body produces excess glucose it is stored within the muscle cells and liver as glycogen. It is, then, stored until the body is in need of an energy burst. Glycogen that is not stored within the cells and liver is stored as fat within the body. Immediate stores of glycogen are used by the body to meet short term energy needs. This is where the problems associated with being overweight, such as the development of diabetes, begin. When excessive amounts of fat are stored and not used for energy, health problems typically result. The only way the fat reserves will begin being used as energy is through the start of an exercise program.

For adults, the recommended carbohydrate intake varies slightly from one organization to another. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), adults should get 55 to 75% of their dietary energy from carbs, with only 10% coming from simple carbs. However, the Institute of Medicine recommends 45 to 65%.

It is important to understand that no one should have a diet that is completely free of carbohydrates because the body requires a certain amount to properly function. When an insufficient amount of carbs are consumed, it can result in numerous health issues, including poor mental capacity, fatigue, and muscle cramps. While carbs are an essential part of our diet, the body can use fat and proteins to produce energy on a very short term basis. This is why there have been such as increase in low carb and no carb diets. Keep in mind that low carb and no carb diets are not the same thing. For healthy weight loss, you must eat the right types of carbs.

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  1. I thought it was because of the presence of fiber that the sugar in fresh fruit was digested slower and you do not have spikes.

    • Yes, that is a big part of the reason. Fruit juice (even fresh squeezed from whole fruit) will give much more of an insulin spike – and later, a sugar crash – than eating the whole fruit. Plus we tend to consume more of it, faster.

  2. It says “no one should have a diet that is completely free of carbohydrates”, well that is almost impossible anyways, because carbohydrates are not just in pasta and rice and bread, they are in all vegetables like broccoli and onions.

    • Right, but there are some people who think that “low carb” means eating no fruits and vegetables at all. That would be real dangerous, very bad for the health, and could cause some serious diseases. Atkins and similar diets all include vegetables. The one that doesn’t (in some phases) is Dukan, and we don’t recommend that.

  3. Oh lordy, those cakes. You should not put pictures of goodies like that on a page about low carb. You are giving me cravings LOL

  4. Yes agree regarding cakes!!

  5. Thank you. I was just reading an article on another site about how to avoid cravings and it had pictures of commonly craved foods after every bullet point. How crazy and thoughtless is that. It was huffington post so its possible the author of the article didn’t have control like you do on your own site here. All the same, they surely could have asked to have it changed.

  6. Some people do eat no carbs at all. Like this woman http://myzerocarblife.jamesdhogan.com/wp/

  7. Right, but a lot of people have side effects from that. Kelly Hogan is just one person who doesn’t. Check out a forum such as activenocarber and you will find some people who struggle with side effects like gout, constipation, even kidney disease.

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