What Are Carbohydrates?
+ Schedule List of Good and Bad Types
Carbohydrates are important nutrients that give your body energy.
Like other macronutrients, such as fats and proteins, carbohydrates are essential for a varied and balanced diet.
But there is a big difference between “good” and “bad” carbohydrates. In this article, you read everything about carbohydrates.
You also learn which carbohydrates are healthy and which can be better avoided for good overall health.
You also learn:
- What exactly are carbohydrates
- Which carbohydrates are healthy
- How many carbohydrates you can eat per day
- Which carbohydrate sources you better off avoiding
And much more…
What are carbohydrates?
We need carbohydrates to stay healthy, just like proteins and fats.
Your body will have to receive the three macronutrients through the diet because they can not be made by the body itself.
Your body can then make non-essential amino acids (proteins) and fatty acids.
Carbohydrates are in the form of sugars, starches and/or fibers in:
In sugars and dairy products, sugars occur naturally.
Grains, legumes and certain vegetables are naturally starch.
Most animal foods such as fish, meat, eggs and cheese do not contain carbohydrates. Some types of meat contain very small amounts of carbohydrates (in the form of glycogen).
Pure fats such as butter, coconut oil, olive oil and other vegetable oils also contain no or a negligible amount of carbohydrates.
What makes carbohydrates special within the group of 3 macronutrients is that they are the primary fuel for our body.
If energy from carbohydrates is available, the body will always use it first before talking about fats and proteins.
Your body not only needs energy for your muscles but also for other functions such as:
- Regulating your temperature
- The central nervous system
- The immune system
- Your heartbeat
- The respiration
- The digestion
- For the brain
- The continuous renewal of tissue
Carbohydrates prevent your body from using protein as an energy source and they are necessary for your fat metabolism.
If your body uses proteins as an energy source, it can be at the expense of your muscle mass and strength.
Protein needs your body for the recovery and maintenance of (muscle) cells.
It is therefore important that you eat enough carbohydrates every day.
The classification of carbohydrates
To classify carbohydrates it is important that you know what they are made of.
Carbohydrates are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. In the image opposite, you can see how the glucose molecule is built up.
The general chemical formula for carbohydrates is Cn (H2O) m.
The ratio between hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms is (usually) 2: 1 and the number of carbon atoms depends on the type of carbohydrate.
The chemical structure of a type of carbohydrate determines how your body digests it. This can then affect your health again.
A carbohydrate is made up of sugar molecules. These are called saccharides.
A carbohydrate always consists of at least one sugar molecule, this is called monosaccharide.
Fructose (fruit sugar), galactose, ribose and glucose (grape sugar) are examples of this.
Most monosaccharides such as grape sugar are absorbed almost directly into the blood (exception is fructose, which is absorbed more slowly).
They let the blood glucose rise quickly and – if consumed in large quantities – this can cause a major peak in blood glucose. As a result, more insulin is produced.
Insulin can be seen as the key to your cells. It opens, as it were, the cells so that they can absorb glucose from the blood.
If there is a lot of insulin in the blood then that is a sign for your body that there is apparently a lot of energy available, giving the signal to store fat. .
If there are often large peaks in blood glucose, your body can become increasingly insensitive to insulin in the long run. The glucose is then not properly absorbed from the blood so that the blood sugars become too high.
A carbohydrate consisting of two sugar molecules is called a disaccharide.
Lactose (milk sugar), sucrose (table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar), trehalose and maltose (malt sugar) are examples of this.
Disaccharides also cause blood glucose to rise relatively quickly.
It is only a small step for the body to divide these two sugar molecules into single sugar molecules (glucose).
A carbohydrate that consists of 3 to 9 sugar molecules is an oligosaccharide.
Maltodextrin is an example of this.
If a carbohydrate consists of 9 or more sugar molecules then this is a polysaccharide.
These are, for example, starches such as amylopectin and amylose and fibers such as cellulose and pentosans.
In order to be able to take up polysaccharides, these carbohydrates will first have to be broken down into monosaccharides. How long this takes depends on the complexity of the molecule and the number of glucose chains.
The presence of digestive enzymes also plays a role in this.
For example, saliva contains enzymes that help to break down the carbohydrates in the small intestine into simple sugar molecules.
Your digestion starts already in the mouth with the good chewing of your food.
The pancreas also makes digestive enzymes that are needed to break down complex carbohydrates in the small intestine into simple sugar molecules.
Something else that is involved in the digestion of carbohydrates is the way we prepare them.
For example, a cooked sweet potato ensures a quiet rise in blood glucose. This while that same sweet potato causes a huge peak in blood glucose if you make sweet potato fries in the fryer.
All carbohydrates that can be broken down in the small intestine into one sugar molecule (a monosaccharide) are the digestible carbohydrates. Sugars and starch are used by the body as an energy source.
Eventually, all digestible carbohydrates in the form of glucose are released to the blood. The type of carbohydrates you eat determines only how long this lasts.
Your carbohydrate fuel tank
The body stores this energy in the muscles and the liver. This is done in the form of glycogen.
However, the amount of glycogen that the body can store is limited.
Just think of the marathon runner or cyclist who, after a few hours of walking or cycling, ‘meets the man with the hammer’ if during the race no or insufficient carbohydrates are eaten or drunk.
After about 2 hours of strenuous exercise, the glycogen stores are exhausted and the body switches to the burning of fat. This is much less efficient because it requires more oxygen. The pace then collapses enormously and the runner or cyclist can no longer follow the pace.
If we eat too much carbohydrate then there is a chance that the body can not store all carbohydrates in the muscles and liver. These only have a limited storage capacity.
The body will then still want to preserve this energy. Evolutionary we are so so that we save an energy surplus for bad times. Even though we have food at hand 24 hours a day.
The body stores this by converting the carbohydrates into fat.
This can be seen as the long-term storage of energy and there is practically no limit to the amount of fat that can be stored.
This explains why people can get overweight if they get far too many carbohydrates every day that are not in the healthier food pyramid. Think of soft drinks, candy, fruit juice, chips, etc.
In these processed food products there are a lot of refined carbohydrates and added and added sugars.
This type of carbohydrates we have only been eating in large quantities in recent decades, while we have started to eat fewer carbohydrates from unprocessed grain products and fruit and vegetables.
Indigestible carbohydrates (fibers)
Not all carbohydrates can digest your body in the small intestine. These are the indigestible carbohydrates called fibers.
The indigestible carbohydrates do not directly give your body energy. This does not mean that they are not important or that you do not need them. The opposite is true. Fibers are very important for good health.
They also ensure that glucose can be delivered to the blood more slowly. And they act as prebiotics (source).
Fibers are found in plant foods such as vegetables, legumes, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds.
You have fibers that are broken down by bacteria in the colon. These are fermentable dietary fibers.
The type of fibers that can not be broken down by bacteria are non-fermentable.
Fermentable fibers do give energy. It is estimated that about 2 kcal per gram.
This type of fiber is important to prevent constipation. They give volume to the stool and it ensures that it can move smoothly through the intestines.
Because the good bacteria in the intestines feed on fermentable fibers, they are called prebiotics.
If you have eaten a lot of fermentable fiber, this can result in diarrhea or flatulence, but they do not have any adverse health effects.
Non-fermentable fibers cannot be broken down by the body or bacteria in any way. Because of this, they do not give the body calories. They leave the body unchanged, through the feces.
So you would think that your body really has nothing on non-fermentable fibers. Yet that is not entirely true. They do promote a good bowel movement because they increase the volume of the stool.
A known example of non-fermentable fibers is cellulose. This is in (wheat) bran, cabbage, beans, peas and apples.
Which carbohydrates are healthy?
A 2000 study shows that Western societies derive around 55% of their energy needs from carbohydrates (source). This is less in most Western countries and averages 45%.
Carbohydrates are therefore our most important source of energy. But we have different carbohydrates to choose from.
Healthy carbohydrates are the raw or whole wheat varieties.
They are the carbohydrates that are minimally processed, such as unprocessed wholemeal varieties, fruit, vegetables, legumes and brown rice.
In addition to carbohydrates, these foods also contain micronutrients that you need. They do not provide your body with energy, unlike macronutrients, but you do need them for a good metabolism and health.
Unprocessed foods such as whole grains, vegetables and fruit provide your body with fiber. While processed foods such as white flour are stripped of the fibers. For example, flour or pizza crust is made from flour.
Complex carbohydrates are the slow carbohydrates that you can read about here. Slow carbohydrates are also called healthy, good or unprocessed carbohydrates.
Because they are a long chain of sugars, it takes a while before they can be broken up into sugars. This causes a delayed release in the blood. These types of complex carbohydrates give you energy over a longer period of time.
Try to get carbohydrates, vitamins and other nutrients in as natural a form as possible. For example, prefer to eat fruit instead of drinking concentrated fruit juice. Strive for wholemeal variants instead of processed or refined grains.
Bad carbs are carbohydrates that do not feed your body and/or cause your blood glucose to rise quickly. Many original fibers and natural nutrients have been lost and many sugars, salts, chemicals, preservatives and other unhealthy additives have been added to the factory.
Foods with many bad carbohydrates that contain no or hardly any micronutrients are also called empty calories. An example is crystal sugar. This gives your body energy but does not provide your body with micronutrients because there are no vitamins and minerals in it.
List with good carbohydrates
- Legumes and beans
- Whole grain cereals (wholemeal bread, pasta, etc.)
- Brown rice
- Dried fruit
- Natural Sugars
For each carbohydrate source, you can take into account the explanation below.
Most vegetables contain relatively few carbohydrates, but they contain a lot of fiber and micronutrients, without causing a peak in blood glucose.
You can basically eat as much vegetables as you like, they fill your stomach so you will get enough of it.
Fruit is naturally full of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Fruit is also a good source of dietary fiber. They mainly contain the type of fibers that ensure that the fruit sugars are slowly absorbed by the blood.
You can also eat as much as you want from fruit. The amount of carbohydrates in most fruits is not that bad. Some fruits such as banana do contain a lot of carbohydrates
Legumes and beans
Legumes and beans are a very good source of minerals, fibers and proteins.
If you eat grains, it is important that you eat the whole wheat varieties. These contain the important dietary fibers.
Thanks to the dietary fiber, the carbohydrates are slowly digested and there is no peak in blood glucose.
Cereals are also a good source of nutrients such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
Wholegrain cereals that are nutritious: oats, buckwheat, brown rice, millet, amaranth, basmati rice and quinoa.
Quinoa is actually a seed, but because it is used in the same way as grain, it is also called a pseudographer.
Dried fruit is very rich in natural sugars and calories. Thanks to the dietary fiber, these sugars are absorbed slowly.
Dried fruits such as dates, goji berries, mulberries, mulberries and Inca berries give your body many micronutrients and are therefore ideal sweeteners for the Greek yogurt or oatmeal for example.
Keep it with dried fruit on a maximum of one hand per day.
Natural sugars such as honey and coconut blossom sugar contain micronutrients and could, therefore, be used as an alternative to normal table sugar.
However, these sweeteners do not contain dietary fiber, as a result of which the sugars are absorbed by the blood fairly quickly.
Always use these sweeteners in moderation (but not at all) to keep the GL low.
List with bad carbohydrates
Bad carbohydrates often contain a lot of added sugars and few nutrients. They are described as bad because they cause rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels
Examples of unhealthy carbohydrate sources:
- White rice
- White bread
- Processed breakfast cereal
- Pastry, cake, bars
- Soft drinks, fruit juices, drinking yogurt. custard etc.
- Chips, cocktail nuts, pretzels, toasts
All these foods have in common that they raise the blood glucose quickly causing your body to produce a lot of insulin.
How many carbohydrates can you eat per day?
To answer this question you will first have to decide how many calories you can eat per day; your daily calorie requirement. This depends on your gender, age, height and weight and your goal (staying on weight, arriving, losing weight).
On this page, you will find the most advanced and comprehensive BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) calculator from the internet. Calculate what your daily calorie requirement is.
Several health organizations indicate that 40% to 70% of your calories should come from carbohydrates. 1 gram of carbohydrates provides 4 kcal.
The European Food Safety Authority (the EFSA, which stands for the European Food Safety Authority), recommends that at least 45-60% of our daily energy needs come from carbohydrates (source).
When it comes to carbohydrates, eating is a good strategy. This is evident from a study from 2018, which states that people who get about half of their total calories from carbohydrates have a lower risk of early mortality than those who followed a carbohydrate diet or low-carbohydrate diet (source).
The researchers estimate that people who ate a moderate amount of carbohydrates at the age of 50 had a life expectancy of about 83, compared with 82 for a carbohydrate-rich diet and 79 for a low-carbohydrate diet.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from almost 15,500 American adults who participated in the study. All participants completed a detailed dietary questionnaire at the beginning of the study, and another six years later. They also provided information about their background, education and income level, smoking status, exercise habits and medical history. The researchers then followed them for about 25 years.
After adjusting for lifestyle factors, the researchers saw a correlation between the intake of carbohydrates and mortality. They saw that the risk of mortality was higher for participants who ate very much and very little carbohydrate, ie those who consumed more than 70% carbohydrates or less than 40% of their total daily calorie intake from carbohydrates. Of the group with the highest life expectancy, between 50 and 55% of their calorie intake came from carbohydrates.
According to the researchers, there are a few possible explanations for this outcome. The people at the top of the scale consume large quantities of refined carbohydrates that do not provide much nutritional value and potentially affect weight and overall health. The participants who eat low carbohydrates have a preference for (red) meat and dairy products, which may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and death (source).
Suppose you have calculated that your daily calorie requirement is 2,000 kcal. Then between 800 kcal (40%) and 1,400 kcal (70%) of your calories should come from carbohydrates.
Divide this by 4 for the number of grams of carbohydrates. You then need between 200 grams and 350 grams of carbohydrates per day.
For your health and healthy weight you can best go for healthy carbohydrate sources; choose as much as possible for unprocessed or wholemeal varieties.
Avoid as many refined carbohydrates and added sugars as possible.
Added sugars, such as in soft drinks and snacks, are the worst form of carbohydrates. They are incinerated with all kinds of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, raised cholesterol, high blood pressure, a non-alcoholic fatty liver, type 2 diabetes and obesity (source, source, source, source).
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