Updated: May 30, 2022
Carbohydrate receives a lot of attention and is often a debated topic among health and wellness professionals. How does one of our primary sources of energy get such a bad reputation? Basically, not all carbohydrates are created equal — some are nutrient-dense and support a healthy body while others have been stripped of their nutrients and contain little to no nutritional value. Often, “carbs” are viewed only as bread, pasta, and snack foods, but carbohydrates can be found in many foods that are essential to a balanced diet.
Before getting into a debate, let’s roll back to basics and get a true understanding of carbohydrate’s important purpose and function in the body. Carbohydrate is a primary source of energy for our bodies and our brains (along with protein and fat). Carbohydrate is made up of three components: fiber and starch (complex carbohydrates) and sugar (simple carbohydrate). In this post, we’ll explain the importance of carbohydrate in your diet, the difference between simple and complex carbohydrate, how they are digested, and what nutrients accompany whole food sources containing carbohydrate.
Simple carbohydrates, also called simple sugars, are found naturally in fruit, honey, human milk, and animal milk. They are also found in many processed foods like table sugar, sweetened beverages, candy, syrups, salad dressings, sauces, breakfast cereals and more. Simple carbohydrates contain one to two sugar molecules and may or may not have nutritional value, depending on the type of simple carbohydrate. For example, fruit is classified as a simple carbohydrate because of its short type of sugar molecules but fruit also contains nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, water and fiber that are essential for optimal health. On the other hand, packaged foods containing processed sugar contain no nutritional value or fiber, which is why they are sometimes classified as “empty calories.” They give you extra calories with no nutritional benefit. Added sugars have been associated with rising levels of obesity, heart disease, and increased cancer risk.
Simple carbohydrates are absorbed quickly, and can cause a rise in blood sugar after ingestion which leads to a boost of energy for most people that is often short-lived. That boost of energy can also cause a boost in insulin, the hormone that transports sugar, or glucose, to our cells. Over time, high sugar and elevated insulin levels can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, inflammation, heart disease and increased cancer risk. Up and down blood sugar also leads to hunger hormone fluctuations and may leave you craving more sugar.
Fruit has simple sugar. Why is it good for you? The fiber in fruit helps to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Also, the vitamins and minerals naturally occurring in fruit assist with metabolizing that sugar, not to mention assist with many other functions in the body. This is one reason why it’s important to consume the whole fruit versus fruit juice, which has been stripped of fiber.
Complex carbohydrates are found in legumes, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Complex carbohydrates are made up of fiber and starch and contain three or more sugars, which means they are slower to digest and provide a sustainable, long-term energy source. Adding complex carbohydrates to your diet may reduce hunger and give you sustainable energy throughout the day. They’ve been shown to help with weight management, prevent diabetes, and reduce risk of heart disease and cancer. Complex carbohydrates are recommended more often than simple carbohydrates due to their high fiber content, vitamins, and minerals, and increased digestion time. The high fiber content in legumes, beans, whole grains, and vegetables makes them more filling and helps to move food through your digestive system smoothly, which prevents constipation. The various types of fiber also contribute to a healthy gut, creating a balance of bacteria for overall health.
Carbohydrate: Friend or Foe?
Once again, refined carbohydrates can be heavily processed and typically contain no nutritional value. These types of carbohydrate-rich foods have been attributed to the rise of obesity in the U.S. because they are easy to produce, consumed in large portions, and oftentimes have added sugars to make them tasty (and addicting!). Remember, refined and processed carbohydrates are digested quickly and increase blood sugar levels giving you a short burst of energy, and leaving you hungry shortly after consumption.
The best types of carbohydrate-rich foods are whole foods. When you include a variety of whole plant-based foods you get a well-balanced blend of nutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) and various types of fiber that contribute to gut health and overall health. Including an assortment of whole grains (brown or black rice, quinoa, farro, oats, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, and more found here), vegetables, fruits, and legumes (chickpeas, black beans, lentils, edamame, and more found here) in your meals will help keep you full longer and provide long-lasting fuel for your brain and body to thrive.
A note about gluten-free
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For some people, it may be a challenge to digest gluten. Reasons why someone may be gluten-free include:
Gluten intolerance: a reaction the body has to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
Wheat allergy: an allergy to the protein in wheat, but not necessarily limited to gluten.
Celiac Disease: an autoimmune disease that develops due to certain genes, HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1. The prevalence is 1% of the U.S. population.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology says “this protein [gluten] can cause digestive problems such as gassiness, abdominal pain or diarrhea”. For more information regarding celiac disease, the likelihood you have it, and blood tests available to be diagnosed with celiac disease, visit Celiac Disease, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, and Food Allergy: How are they different?
Adopting a gluten-free diet is not for everyone and is not necessarily a “healthier” way of eating. Wheat, barley, and rye are high in fiber and are great sources for many B vitamins including niacin, folate, B6. They also contain minerals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, and phosphorus and healing phytonutrients that may help to prevent lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Finally, they are sources of prebiotic fiber, which is essential to gut health. In fact, one study showed that when healthy subjects remove gluten-containing foods from their diet, their gut bacteria diversity decreases with a notable decrease in the healthy gut bacteria. So, unless you were diagnosed with celiac disease or know that you have gluten sensitivity, whole-grain foods containing gluten can be enjoyed as a part of a healthy well-balanced diet.
If you suspect that you have gluten sensitivity you could try eliminating foods containing gluten to see if your symptoms disappear. Keeping a food and symptom journal is helpful to see which foods trigger symptoms. There is no standard test for gluten sensitivity, therefore sharing your food journal and symptoms with your healthcare provider will help determine if it is indeed gluten that is causing the symptoms.
If you suspect celiac disease, it’s important to contact your healthcare provider to get a blood test or intestinal biopsy to confirm celiac disease.
While following a gluten-free diet, just note that there are many nutritious and delicious grains that do not contain gluten. Examples include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, oats, quinoa, sorghum, teff, and wild rice.
While carbohydrates can sometimes be portrayed as “bad”, it’s important to remember that all carbohydrates are not created equal. Carbohydrate-rich foods can, and should, be enjoyed as a part of a healthy, well-balanced plant-based diet. Here are some recipes that contain sustainable carbohydrate and key nutrients to keep you energized and fueled all day long:
Did you learn something new about carbohydrates? Do you have any questions regarding carbohydrates? Drop your comments down below!
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Hi! My name is Tatum Nolan and I'm a dietetic student in the Coordinated Program at Georgia State University. My passion for nutrition has inspired me to pursue a career as a registered dietitian. I have many interests in nutrition and specifically love the individualized care to patients that RD's provide! I'm excited to learn about blogging and the benefits of plant-based eating.