Carbohydrates: What Are They and Why Do We Need Them?

Most of us have heard the term “carbohydrate,” but what are they exactly? Different types of carbohydrates can differ dramatically, so let’s start with the basics.

Four Types of Carbohydrates

There are four categories of carbohydrates:  monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharides, and oligosaccharides. Monosaccharides consist of one molecule. Two molecules compose disaccharides, and they get increasingly complex after that.

  1. Monosaccharides, like fructose and glucose (dextrose), are often known as “simple sugars.” Glucose is the most important carbohydrate in the human body since it helps with energy metabolism. All organs can use glucose as an energy source, whereby the brain, adrenal medulla, and red blood cells depend on glucose as an energy source. It serves as both a fuel and as a nutrient. Our body uses it, for example, to build up mucilage or the basic structures of our genetic information (DNA).
  2. Disaccharides, like sucrose, maltose, and lactose, are made of two monosaccharides. Sucrose (aka table sugar) is the favorite carbohydrate of most Americans since it tastes so sweet.
  3. Polysaccharides, like glycogen and starch, are an even more complex category of carbohydrates and can be quite diverse. Most dietary fibers belong to the category of carbohydrates. We can’t digest these as easily as the simpler carbohydrates, but they’re essential to helping us absorb vital nutrients. They help us normalize blood sugar levels.
  4. Oligosaccharides are the most complex carbohydrates, and indigestible by humans. They can play a vital role in digestion, and promote colon health. Many beans and probiotics fall into this category.

Carbohydrates and Your Diet

So what does all this mean? Why should we know about the different types of carbohydrates? Because many dietitians recommend that carbohydrates should comprise 45 to 65 percent of our daily caloric intake.

As we just learned, one type of carbohydrate can be very different than another. Look for more complex carbohydrates, like foods rich in starch and dietary fibers, because they contain minerals, vitamins, and great phytonutrients. They also help your body better digest and metabolize other good foods.

Fill up on whole grains and cereal products, legumes, celery, and beets. Limit simpler carbs, like fructose and glucose, found in foods like sweets, honey, jellies, or lemonade. They have a lower molecular weight (since they’re only made of one molecule) – hence the term “empty calories.

Fruits are high in simple sugars, but they’re a great source of micronutrients, so aim for at least two servings a day. Also aim to eat at least three servings of vegetables. Most vegetables don’t have as many simple carbs like fruits, but they’re abundant sources of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

carbohydrates food

Carbohydrates and Fat Storage

While the quality of carbohydrates matters, quantity does, too! If we have too many simple carbs that our body can’t digest, the body stores that glucose as glycogen.

Glycogen is stored glucose and found in human and animal organisms, which we store in the liver and muscles. This means that we have more fat deposits than carbohydrate reserves. After we metabolize our food, fat and muscles disintegrate to produce energy.

When we eat low-carb diets (with less glucose) like the South Beach Diet, our body burns more glycogen and depletes our fat supplies. When we eat more carbohydrates than we can burn, we store more fat.

Simple Sugars

carbohydrates fork spoon

While we need carbohydrates, most Americans don’t choose the more nutritious, complex carbs. The actual average adult carbohydrate consumption is 40 to 50 percent of caloric intake. but studies have shown a decrease in complex carbs, such as potatoes and whole grains. Table sugar (sucrose) consumption continues to increase. Today, sugar accounts for about one-third of carbohydrate intake.

Sucrose sources are everywhere! Sweetened beverages, candy, and bakery products all contain sucrose. But be on the lookout for “hidden sugar.” A tablespoon of Ketchup contains about 4 grams of sugar, and a half cup of pasta sauce has about 10 grams.

Too Much Sugar Leads to Weight Gain

The World Health Organization recommends consuming a maximum of 50 grams of sugar per day, preferably only 25 grams. So just an eight-ounce glass of cola or fruit juice already contains an entire day’s worth of sugar!

This extra sugar and empty calories have helped fuel the rise in obesity. Many people are consuming too many simple carbs, like those found in soft drinks, and instead of feeling full, they just want to eat more simple sugars.

A US nutritional guideline recommends limiting the proportion of simple sugars to 10 percent of your total daily caloric intake, or about 200 calories (for an adult with an office job). This is equivalent to just twelve teaspoons. Currently, the average American eats 22 to 30 teaspoons of sugar per day, half of which comes from soft drinks. Too much sugar leads to various diseases, such as dental cavities, obesity, and fatty liver disease. More and more scientists, therefore, recommend reducing carbohydrate content, especially sugar content, in favor of good fats such as olive oil or canola oil.

Pursue a Healthy Lifestyle

The right types of carbohydrates, especially complex carbs, are essential to a balanced, healthy lifestyle, but we also need proteins and fats. To find out more about these two nutritional essential nutrients, be sure to check out our posts on protein and fats.

Finding the right nutritional plan can be a lot of work! Talk with your family on FamilyApp to strategize for a healthy living plan. Be sure to share favorite recipes and shopping tips, too!

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