In this series of nutritional articles, I will break down the types of carbohydrates, basic benefits and food examples while at the same time outlining the dangers of sugar.
Last but not least, I shall present you with better and healthier alternatives that will support your weight goals.
Table of Contents
- 1 What are carbohydrates?
- 2 Simple Carbohydrates
- 3 So which type of carbs should you consume?
- 4 Supplements
- 5 Recommendations
- 6 Closing Notes
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates (a.k.a carbs) are the primary source of energy for the body, blood red cells, parts of the eye and especially the brain since the latter requires glucose to operate properly. They are made of Carbon, Oxygen and Hydrogen through the process of photosynthesis in green plants.
But it’s not just plants that contain carbs, a lot of animal sources contain carbs as well such as dairy. In the latest years, carbohydrates have been accused as the main suspects for the obesity and fat gain epidemic (which is not entirely accurate).
There are 2 categories of carbs:
- Complex carbs a.k.a disaccharides (maltose, lactose and sucrose).
- Simple carbs also known as monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose and galactose)
Complex carbs are formed when 2 or more monosaccharides join together. There is another type of distinction which is based on digestion times within the human body. Also good to bear in mind is that some carbs are naturally occurring i.e found in nature while others are manufactured in a chemical lab.
Complex carbs come in 2 categories: a) Starches and b) dietary fiber.
- Starch needs to be broken down through the digestion process to glucose before your body can utilize it for energy production. Such foods are potatoes, dry beans, peas, corn, breads, cereals and grains/whole grains.
- Dietary fiber comes in 2 categories i) soluble fiber and ii) insoluble fiber
Starches – Types of Grains
- Whole grains are the type of starches that contain the entire seed or kernel along with its parts (bran, the germ, and the endosperm).
These are considered to be healthier than their processed counterparts but depending on the type of nutrition and your goals, their intake should be calculated carefully.
Examples of whole grains:
- Brown rice,
- Bulgur (cracked wheat),
- Wild rice,
- Popcorn (the fat-free air popped variety),
- Whole -grain barley,
- Whole -grain corn,
- Whole oats/oatmeal,
- Whole rye,
- Whole wheat,
- Refined or processed grains are those who have been processed and part of its dietary fiber and other nutrients are removed. These grains should be consumed in smaller quantities or avoided altogether for optimal health.
- Enriched (processed) grains are those who have key nutrients such as folic acid and iron added separately (these nutrients are usually removed when they are processed). Mind you that these grains are still considered processed and should be consumed in smaller quantities or avoided altogether.
Examples of enriched grains:
- White rice,
- White breads.
- Fortified grains are those that have extra nutrients added such as vitamins.
Again this category is considered to be a processed food.
Dietary Fiber – Soluble fiber
Soluble fiber is the type that absorbs water and forms a gel in your stomach which slows down digestion until all nutrients have been absorbed. This will make you feel fuller and give you a better insulin response (by keeping it more sensitive) thus protecting you against diabetes. They will also lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.
This is one of the most beneficial type of carbs one can consume for optimal health.
Soluble fiber is found in the following foods:
- Oatmeal and oat cereal,
- Nuts and seeds,
- Fruits (e.g. oranges, strawberries, blueberries, pears, and apples),
- Dry beans and peas,
- Some veggies (cucumbers, celery and carrots).
Dietary Fiber – Insoluble fiber
Insoluble fiber does not mix nor dissolves in water so it goes through your G.I tract almost intact and this way it is removed from your system faster. Therefore, it has a laxative effect and can potentially help with constipation.
This is again another beneficial type of carb one can consume for optimal health.
Insoluble fiber can be found in the following foods:
- Whole wheat bread and whole grains,
- Grains such as bulgur,
- Brown rice,
- Bulgur or whole grain cereals,
- Seeds and nuts,
- Most vegetables (cabbage, onions, tomatoes, carrots, dark leafy vegetables),
- Fruits (such as grapes) and dried fruit (such as raisins),
- Root vegetable skins.
The problem with (too much) Fiber
As a general rule, you should try and keep your fiber consumption between 20-30grs per day.
In order to keep up with that number make sure you have at least 2-3 portions of veggies and fruits in your diet but be careful not to overdo it.
While fiber is considered to be great for digestion (due to its laxative effect) people with unhealthy G.I tracts tend to focus on increasing fiber consumption instead of fixing their G.I tracts. The problem with too much fiber is that you will be making more runs to the toilet and thus losing more nutrients, minerals and vitamins before your body has a chance to digest and absorb them properly.
This also adds to the existing problem of the unhealthy (and possible inflamed) G.I tract, which should be addressed before anything else.
Simple carbohydrates are the second big category of carbs. Unlike complex carbs, these are broken down much quicker by the body to be used as energy. They can be found in foods especially fruits and dairy products.
They are also found in processed and refined foods that are widely available in the market. On top of that, some of these processed foods have added sugar to enhance their flavor but they tend to be harmful because of the high insulin response that they produce. In addition, these foods can be addictive and often less nutritious than foods found in nature.
Examples of these foods are candy, soft drinks/sodas, syrups and even pasta sauces and pre-made meals.
Are all simple carbs bad?
It depends on the type of simple carbs and the purpose for which they are consumed.
Simple natural carbs that are found in nature and have not been processed contain all the enzymes, fiber and vitamins which make them ideal for human consumption in proper doses (i.e. small doses) and at appropriate times (after workouts to replenish glycogen).
Two great examples of simple carbs that are full of nutrients are:
- Unprocessed honey (high in B-Vitamins),
- Raw maple syrup (high in minerals and Zinc).
On the flip side simple processed carbs are usually full of added sugar and can be harmful, addictive, less nutritious and in most cases should be avoided completely.
So which type of carbs should you consume?
When it comes to carbs, the obvious choice for optimal health and better body composition is to focus the majority of carb intake on complex carbs and consume a small portion of natural simple carbs (fruits and veggies) while completely avoiding any type of refined and processed simple carbs.
For obese or overweight people who are otherwise healthy, (with no thyroid, liver or other problems) things are different. People who have an obvious weight problem or struggle with losing weight should get their carbs only from veggies. A lot of fruit is also not an option as they are also high in fructose which is also a sugar. 1-2 pieces of citrus fruit per day is enough for these people.
Athletes, on the other hand, have different needs and this is the only rule to the exception. People in this category must focus on complex carbs and can only consume simple carbs (including monosaccharides) before and after a workout.
When it comes to supplementation, there are a lot of products out there that can help replenish glycogen or electrolytes or help with weight gain. Depending on your goal, you should choose the one that is appropriate for you.
However, make sure you understand the distinction between each type of sugar and carb before getting a product that can harm your health and body composition goals.
You can read up on my upcoming article on gainers to see my recommendations.
As for supplementation with carbs for athletes, the ones I recommend are:
- A combo of Dextrose and Maltodextrin (both are cheap and easy to acquire),
- Natural sugar alternatives such as raw organic honey, maple syrup, date syrup.
All of the above can be taken before or after your workout to replenish your glycogen levels.
The healthiest of the above recommendations is the last one for reasons that I have explained earlier in the article.
Knowledge is power and learning about carbohydrates will allow you to make better food choices in order to reach your health or weight goals. How many carbs do you usually consume on a daily basis and which types do you mostly focus on? Leave a comment below and let’s get a discussion going.
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by Nick Sigma
CWC, EH, E-YRT200