Carbohydrates 101: The Types, Differences, and Facts

carbohydrates 101 types facts

Carbohydrates often get a bad rap but what may surprise you is that they are essential to your health, as they provide nutrients that your body needs to turn into glucose to give the body energy to function. However, not all carbs are created equally, as they can be found in both healthy and unhealthy foods. This is why there are so many low-carb diets for weight loss. But what’s more important than the amount of carbs you eat is the type of carbs you eat. Assuming that you are consuming healthy carbohydrates, you can eat a fair amount in comparison to unhealthy carbohydrates that should be limited or avoided altogether. In fact, it’s recommended that you should be filling most of your plate with carbohydrates – the healthy ones, of course. In this article, we break down the carbohydrates so you know exactly what to eat, how much to eat and the benefits you can expect to see.

What are Carbohydrates?

Put simply, carbohydrates are sugar molecules. They are one of the three main nutrients found in foods (the others are proteins and fats), and are absolutely essential for health, as the body breaks them down into glucose. This glucose (blood sugar) is the main source of energy used as fuel for your body’s cells, organs and tissues. As such, carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet and you need them in order to support healthy and proper bodily functions and physical activity. But like most things in life, quality is important.

Carbohydrates can be found in a vast array of healthy and unhealthy foods and come in a variety of forms. Sugar, fiber and starches are all types of carbs and the healthiest sources of carbohydrates come from food items, such as fruits, vegetables, beans and unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains. These promote good health by providing the body with the minerals, fiber, vitamins and phytonutrients it needs to function.

Unhealthier sources of carbs include items, such as pastries, baked goods, white bread, soda and processed or refined foods. These carbohydrates are the ones that can have a negative impact on your health by causing weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.

Now, the amount of carbohydrates you consume will affect your blood sugar but you can eat far more healthy carbs than the unhealthy varieties.  So, when it comes to carbohydrates, it isn’t so much about how much you’re eating as it is about ensuring the quality you put into your body. For example, nutritional experts recommend filling up approximately half of your plate with healthy carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables (potatoes don’t count)

Types of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are typically separated into two types: simple and complex carbs, which are based on how quickly the body can digest them. For example, simple carbs are digested quickly and provide you with an immediate burst of glucose, which is why you get an energy rush (sugar rush) after eating a dessert. These carbs also leave you crashing with fatigue once the burst of glucose is depleted.  Complex carbs, on the other hand, get digested significantly more slowly, which supplies the body with a more steady release of glucose into the bloodstream.  These are often found in vegetables, fruit and whole-grain products and contain important vitamins, minerals and fibers.

Here are some examples of food items that fall within each category:

  • Simple carbs consist of items, such as baked goods, cakes, chocolate, cookies, fruit juices, corn syrup, etc.
  • Complex carbs consist of items, such as quinoa, brown rice, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, etc.

Just as with anything in there, there are some versions within each category that are better than others. For example, all vegetables are healthy, complex carbohydrates but there are some that are considered to be healthier than others, and so on and so forth. This circles back to the importance of the quality of carbohydrates you eat.

A Detailed Look at Complex Carbs

Complex carbohydrates are starches, fibers and sugars. To better understand these types of carbs, it’s best to look at each type.

Starchy Complex Carbs

Starches are complex carbs that provide the body with essential vitamins and nutrients. They help keep the body’s blood sugar levels stable and allow you to feel fuller for longer. Most starches fit into the complex carb category, but not all. Some examples of starchy carbohydrates are:

  • Fruit, such as berries, melons, and apples
  • Whole-grains, such as brown rice, whole-wheat breads and pasta, and oatmeal
  • Beans and legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils, and kidney beans
  • Vegetables, such as peas, potatoes, lima beans and corn

The daily recommended amount for starch is approximately 100 to 278 grams a day, depending on your calorie intake.

Fiber Complex Carbs

Complex carbs containing fiber come from plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products. They are important to your health, as the body cannot break down fiber so most of it passes through your intestines to stimulate and help with digestion. It also helps with lowering cholesterol, helping you feel full longer and regulating your blood sugar levels.  As such, it’s recommended that the average adult should have anywhere from 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day. Most people don’t get even half of that amount.

To increase your daily intake of fiber, some examples of complex carbs include:

  • Fruits with edible skins, such as apples, peaches, nectarines, or edible seeds, such as berries
  • Vegetables, such as lima beans, broccoli, squash, corn and brussels sprouts
  • Nuts and Seeds, like almonds, walnuts, peanuts, pumpkins seeds and sunflower seeds
  • Whole-grain products, such as oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, cereal and whole-wheat bread and pasta
  • Beans and legumes, like chickpeas, pinto beans, lentils and black beans

Sugar Carbs

All sugar is the same when it comes to carbs because the body cannot tell the difference and it’s all processed the same: it gets broken down quickly for a rush of energy. So, sugar is sugar, regardless as to whether it’s naturally-occurring from things, such as milk and fresh fruits or added sugar, commonly found in canned fruit, juices and sodas.

However, there are definitely healthier sugars to have (naturally occurring sugars),  as they also contain vitamins, minerals and sometimes fiber. As mentioned previously, these are found in fresh fruits and milk. But since the sugar content will have the same effect on your body, you still want to be mindful of the amount of sugar you get each day.

The American Heart Association recommends limited refined sugars and foods that contain added sugar, and to aim to have:

  • No more than 25g (6 teaspoons) per day of added sugar for most women.
  • No more than 36g (9 teaspoons) per day of added sugar for most men.

What is the Recommended Daily Amount for Carbohydrates?

There is no recommended amount for daily carbs, as it highly depends on a variety of factors, such as your age, gender, activity level, medical conditions and weight goals. However, there are recommendations for the different types of carbs, such as:

  • Starchy Carbs: approximately 100 to 278 grams a day, depending on your calorie intake.
  • Fiber: 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day
  • Sugars: No more than 25 to 36 grams a day.

Another way to look at it is on your plate. Experts recommend a healthy plate of food should be filled with:

  • Half fruits and vegetables
  • 1/4th whole grains
  • 1/4th protein

How Carbs Impact Your Health

As the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. Regardless of whether you’re eating healthy carbs or unhealthy carbs, you’ll want to be mindful of the amount you’re putting into your system as all carbs directly impact your blood sugar levels. However, you can have far more complex (healthy) carbs than you can simple carbs, as they are digested more slowly for a steady stream of sugar into your bloodstream.

Some common signs that you’re eating too many carbs include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Feeling tired after consuming simple carbs
  • Weight gain, especially from simple carbs
  • Weight loss, particularly from a diet high in plant-based carbs
  • Excessive gas
  • Feeling bloated
  • Craving more carbs
  • Cavities and tooth decay
  • Brain fog
  • Acne
  • Crashing energy
  • Increased sugar cravings
  • Skin breakouts
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • High cholesterol
  • Mood swings

Alternatively, if you’re consuming too few carbohydrates, you may experience symptoms, such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Nutrient deficiencies and related symptoms
  • Mental fatigue
  • Bad breath

When it comes to carbs, you’re often told that you should limit or avoid them altogether, especially when trying to improve your health or lose weight. But your body needs cards in order to function healthily and properly. The key is to limit or eliminate simple carbs, such as cakes, baked goods and breads, and opt for healthy, high-quality complex carbs, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

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