Carbohydrates are a huge debate not only in the fitness world, but just for general health.
The main point with carbs (carbohydrates) is in relation with weight loss.
So of course, there’s a big possibility that you may have heard of Keto, Atkins, Paleo and the South Beach diets. These are just some of the diets that limit or completely eliminate carb intake.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the diets that are high in carb intake, usually for athletes or during certain phases.
Then right in the middle of each of those are moderate carb intake like the zone diet, which focuses on 40% carb intake.
Since there are so many styles of diets, I am currently writing a post to better understand these different diets, they best way to achieve them, along with the pro’s & con’s of each.
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So, who is right? Are carbs evil?
What are good carbs and bad carbs? What the heck are carbs anyways!?
(This post probably containers affiliate links, so if you want to read our boring full disclaimer policy, you can read all of it HERE.)
Let’s start from the beginning, since knowledge is key.
What Are Carbohydrates?
I will try not to go too “science-y”, since I did title this blog, “Carbs Made Easy!”
Carbohydrates are saccharides, which are sugars or starches. More specifically, carbs are sugar molecules that are a union of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (CHO).
Carbs are one of three main macronutrients, and are considered the bodies preferred energy source. Macronutrients are the main ways the body obtains energy, or calories. The three macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
What Carbohydrates Do For Our Bodies
Once again, knowledge is key. So before heading into which carbs are good and bad, we need to understand what carbs do for our bodies. Since carbohydrates are one of the macronutrients, they need to be consumed. The body does not make macronutrients.
Carbohydrates provide fuel for the central nervous system, energy for working muscles and brain function.
The body first breaks down the carbs so that they can enter the bloodstream. Since carbs are sugars and starches, after they are broken down by the body, the amount of sugar (glucose) increases in your bloodstream.
The level of sugar in the bloodstream is called your blood sugar level. As you eat carbs, your blood sugar level rises, which activates the hormone insulin to suck the excess sugar out of the bloodstream and into your muscles and your liver. Your muscles & liver are basically sugar storage tanks and uses the carbs eaten for energy.
Types of Carbs
The types of carbs you may hear of are: healthy vs. unhealthy, bad vs. good, slow vs. fast, simple vs. complex. No wonder there are so many questions about carbs and such a misunderstanding!!
Remember, make it simple. Carbs are just broken down sugar molecules turned into glucose.
So, there are 3 types of carbs that are specifically defined by the number of sugar molecules contained:
This is the smallest possible sugar unit. Mono’s are one sugar molecule, examples include glucose, galactose (found in milk & dairy), or fructose (found in vegetables & fruit).
Disaccharides are two sugar molecules, more specifically, two monosaccharide molecules bonded together.
Examples of this include, lactose (found in milk), maltose (found in beer) and sucrose (table sugar).
Polysaccharides are a chain of two or more monosaccharides, making them the most complex type of carbohydrate. These molecule chains can actually consist of hundred of thousands of monosaccharides.
They are made up of several sugar molecules, examples include starchy foods like pasta, potatoes, and fiber, which is the indigestible part of a plant that aids in digestion.
Simple Vs. Complex Carbs
If you have looked into any information about carbohydrates, you’ve more than likely stumbled upon the terms simple and complex. Simple and complex carbs are just an easier way to describe the 3 types of carbs (mono, di, and poly).
Monosaccharides and disaccharides are simple carbohydrates. They are sugars. Simple carbohydrates consist of only one or two molecules. These simple carbs are going to be more of your white bread, sugars, candies, ice creams, pastries, soda, and syrups.
Simple carbs are easily absorbed into the bloodstream which create a fast jolt of blood glucose.
For example, have you seen a little kid on candy after Halloween Trick or Treating?! They eat ALL the candy and they become little Tasmanian Devils for about an hour! Then they full out CRASH and are starving when they come down from the sugar high. Simple carbs help provide a rapid source of energy, although does not hold a sense of “fullness”.
Complex carbs are polysaccharides. They have three or more sugars and because of their more complex molecular structure, it takes longer for the body to break them down into sugar. Since they take longer to break down, they still tend to fill you up quickly although they keep the “full” feeling for much longer. Complex carbs help provide more sustained energy.
Think whole-grain breads and cereals, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, potatoes, and some fruits that contain higher amounts of fiber.
Complex carbs are considered a healthier option when it comes to carbs. They contain more vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Good Vs. Bad
talk of glycemic index – how they decide on good or bad for you. –
Carbohydrates are found in such a vary of foods since they range from one sugar molecule to a chain of thousand of sugar molecules. Let’s review what makes a “GOOD” or “BAD” carb first. Then a bit below, diving into the Glycemic Index to really get a full understanding of how to determine a “good” and “bad” carb.
Simple carbs are mainly categorized as “BAD” carbs. They are found in candy, pastries, doughnuts, white rice, soda and syrups. “BAD” carbs rarely have any nutritional value and cause your blood sugar to rise rapidly.
“BAD” carbs are made usually processed foods, have refined sugars and do not have vitamins, minerals or fiber. They are called “empty calories” and have been found to aid in weight gain.
These “BAD” carbs are mainly categorized as “unhealthy”, “bad”, “fast”, & “simple” carbs.
Bad carbs are:
– High in calories
– Full of refined sugars, like corn syrup, white sugar, or fruit juices
– High in refined grains like white flour
– Low in many nutrients & fiber
– High in sodium
– Sometimes high in saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fats.
Complex carbs are normally categorized as “GOOD” carbs. They are found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes. “GOOD” carbs are absorbed slowly into the bodies bloodstream and have little effect on blood sugar levels.
They contain large amounts of nutrients, vitamins and fiber. “GOOD” carbs are mainly categorized as “healthy”, “good’, “slow” and “complex” carbs.
Good carbs are:
– Low or moderate in calories
– High in nutrients and fiber
– Contains no refined sugars and refined grains
– Low in sodium, saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fats
The Glycemic Index was created to measure the speed with which carbohydrates are converted to glucose. The index ranges from 0 to 100. Foods that digest quickly are high on the index (“Simple” or “Bad” carbs) and foods that digest slowly are lower on the index (“Complex” or “Good” carbs). Basically, the glycemic index measures how quickly and how much a carbohydrate raises blood sugar.
An understanding of the index is important because large spikes in insulin levels affect your hunger (can make you even more hungry), can increase weight, and even lead to diabetes if there is a consistent over consumption of fast digesting carbohydrates.
Here’s a short list of some high and low glycemic carbohydrate foods from well.org:
Now, the Glycemic Index is not perfect and not all foods impact every individuals blood sugar the same way. Although, the index is great for those that have diabetes. In the long run, the Glycemic Index is more of a good resource to have on hand and to understand, but it is not written in stone.
Will carbs make me fat?
Now, I have no PHD nor am a doctor, but I am sure those that do would also cringe when answering this all time question.
There are two main theories when the question arises on carbohydrates in relation to gaining weight:
1) Energy Balance Theory – If you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. If you eat less calories than you burn, you lose weight. This theory is based on the law of thermodynamics. Basically what this theory is boiling down to is, that you can eat as many carbs as you like as long as you eat less total calories than you burn, then you will lose weight.
2) Carbohydrate Hypothesis – Carbs, not calories make you fat is the summation of the carbohydrate hypothesis. Dr. Robert Atkins (AKA The Atkins Diet) views carbs as the root cause of the obesity epidemic. This theory basically boils down to as long as you sufficiently decrease your carb intake, you will lose weight.
So, who’s right?
Well, that would most likely come in the form of a book….or 7 books.
I do go over a few things you should know about weight loss in the 3-part mini series, “What You Need To Know About Weight Loss.” It’s not a book, but I try to give a quick understanding of a few major points that we should know about our bodies when it comes to looking to losing weight.
My honest opinion is meeting the carbs somewhere in the middle. Eating less calories and less carbs can help you lose weight. As well as eating too many calories and too many carbs can help you gain weight.
Eating some candy at the movies or some cake at a birthday party, will not make you fat, but eating a lot of fast digesting carbs combined with excess calories and no exercise is a great strategy for adding a bunch of body fat.
Genetics, hormones and activity levels play a giant role in how carbs are processed, used as energy or stored as fat.
I truly believe that you need to have a balanced diet of complex carbohydrates, protein and fats. Then throw in a treat of a simple carbohydrate every once in a while.
Hey, you still have to enjoy life! Just be balanced!
Different diets work for different people, and you should pick one that suits your lifestyle and tastes.The best diet for you is the one that you can stick to in the long term.
How many carbs should I be eating?
The minimum RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for carbs is 130 grams. This usually pans out to be around 55% of total calories coming from carbs as the general recommendation.
The amount of carbohydrates you should eat depends primarily on your genetics, body size, activity level and goals. The more active you are, the more carbohydrates you can add to your daily diet without worrying about gaining weight.
For example, If you are a 180 lb sedentary guy who wants to maintain weight with a few workouts per week, a good benchmark for carb intake is around 200 grams of carbs. Endurance athletes can and should eat around 300-400 grams per day to help fuel their workouts.
The Take Away
Understanding carbohydrates can be a college class in itself, although it doesn’t have to be. Learn one or two things at first and then eventually inform yourself with little by little.
When it comes to carb intake, use your common sense and try not to get too overwhelmed – a few servings of fruit, plenty of veggies (which provide few calories but tons of nutrients), some starch/grains (or a lot if you are very active) each day should help fuel your body and provide the essential nutrients it needs to function optimally.
I hope this article helps with a bit of understanding the basics of carbs! Comment below to let me know what questions you may have! I am constantly updating my posts to keep up with the times and questions that need to be answered!
You Got This!