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What Are Carbohydrates?

What are carbohydrates and which are good carbohydrates? What are complex carbohydrates and how are they different to simple carbohydrates?

Why are carbs so confusing?


complex carbs

We all need carbohydrates and especially complex carbs and good quality simple carbs (good carbohydrates). Carbohydrates from sugar and starches give you energy to do things like exercise, think, digest, and even breathe. Carbs from fibre help the body eliminate waste and have other health protecting qualities. And the good news is, that healthy wholegrain complex carbs contain no animal fats.

So if carbohydrates are so important for so many bodily functions, why do so many people willingly eliminate carbs from their diets and risk endangering their health?


Most people know that complex carbohydrates are good for us, but what are complex carbohydrates?

Ok - this is the science bit as they say:

Three basic elements including carbon, oxygen and hydrogen make up every carbohydrate. Depending on the way these three elements are arranged, the end result is either simple carbohydrates (sugars) or complex carbohydrates (fibre and starches).

Simple carbohydrates consist of one or two sugar units per molecule. Table sugar is a good example of a single unit sugar, or what's more commonly referred to as a "simple carb".

Fibre and starches are foods that contain many sugar units strung together in long chains. That creates a more complex arrangement of the elements, which is what is meant by the term, complex carbohydrates.

The key difference then between simple carbs and complex carbs is the number of sugar units. One or two sugar units indicate simple carbs. Foods containing longer chains of three sugar units or more are complex carbs. Besides making a carb complex, those longer chains are responsible for giving different foods such a wide variety of taste.


Like anything having to do with nutrition, there are plenty of myths surrounding carbs. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • People tend to think of certain food as carbs. Mention pasta and people think "carbs". Mention bread and again, people think "carbs". But that way of thinking isn't right. Foods are not carbs. Rather, foods contain carbs.

  • What's also incorrect is thinking of carbs as "good carbohydrates" versus "bad carbohydrates". Remember, all carbohydrates, whether they're simple carbs or complex carbs, are made of 3 elements: carbon, water and hydrogen. What's more accurate is understanding that some carb-containing foods are better choices than others because they're more nutrient or energy-dense, or because they have other health benefits.

  • Finally, eating carbs won't necessarily cause weight gain. Eating more calories than you burn – whether they're from fat, protein or carbs – is what causes you to gain weight.


    Since table sugar is a simple carb, people automatically think that anything that has sugar in it is bad for them. But that's not the problem with sugar. The problem has more to do with added and refined sugar.

    A lot of processed foods contain added sugar. Sugar added to anything makes it taste better because sugar obviously makes things taste sweeter. But that's not all. Sugar helps cookies turn brown and adds texture to sweets. Sugar adds bulk and tenderness to cakes. Sugar makes bread rise.

    And unfortunately, added sugar ups the calorie count in any food. And when you eat more calories than you burn, it can lead to weight gain.

    Another problem with processed foods is the processing itself. During processing, naturally occurring carbs are broken down and reassembled so they're no longer in a natural state. The stripping down, processing, and reassembly of these carbs is where trouble begins. When carbs are handled in this way, they lose much of their nutritional value. What you end up consuming when you eat processed foods is mostly empty calories.

    What are some of the foods that undergo this type of carbohydrate processing or have a lot of added sugar?

    Soda, fruit juice and fruit drinks, sweetened cereals, cakes, cookies, chips, crackers, doughnuts, sweets, pie, white bread, prepared foods and all the other convenience foods, snacks and beverages we love so much.

    This doesn't mean that you have to totally eliminate simple carbohydrates from your diet, and we do need them. Simple sugars require no further digesting. Because they're so small, they're immediately absorbed into the bloodstream and ready to give you an instant energy burst.

    Table sugar is not your only simple carb source. The lactose in milk, the sugars in fruits and some vegetables, and even natural sweeteners like honey all consist of single sugar units and are included in the simple carbs category. Whole fruit including blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, melons, peaches, grapefruit, citrus fruit, plums and pears are all good carbohydrates choices, and these are classed as simple carbs. Besides providing your body with a source of fuel, these fruits are loaded with important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that promote better overall health.


    Starches and fibre are two sub categories of complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are foods that contain longer chains of sugar units. Like naturally occurring simple carbs, complex carbs also provide the body with numerous vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are crucial to maintaining good health.

    Although they're both considered complex carbohydrates, starches and fibre play completely different roles within the body.


    The key difference is that only starches can be broken down into sugar and used as energy. But first, the complex carbs found in starches must be broken down into simple carbs. This happens through the process of digestion. Starches are things like seeds, potatoes and other root vegetables (yam, cassava, etc.), legumes (dried peas and beans like pinto, kidney, lima, black-eyed, etc.), soya products, and grains (corn, rice, oats, rye, millet, barley, etc).

    Because it takes a while for the digestive process to break complex carbs from starches down into simple carbs, you get a slower release of energy than you get from simple carbs. And because that energy is released more slowly, you also feel energized longer. In other words, complex carbs give you more and longer lasting energy while simple carbs give you a quick energy burst.


    Within the fibre category are two different types of fibre: Insoluble fibre and soluble fibre. Insoluble fibre helps make elimination of waste regular and easier because the water that fibre absorbs helps soften stools and add bulk. Good sources of insoluble fibre include whole grain foods (including whole grain cereals, crackers, and pasta), raw vegetables and fruit including the skins and seeds (artichokes, carrots, beans, berries, brussel sprouts, cabbage, grapes, turnips, pears, apples, beets, cauliflower, prunes, and corn), legumes, popcorn, and nuts.

    Soluble fibre offers the body protection by helping to lower blood cholesterol and also by helping the body regulate its sugar usage; both of which help reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Soluble fibre slows digestion, keeps you feeling fuller longer, and helps suppress your appetite.

    Good sources of soluble fibre include yams, apples, citrus fruit, oats, rice, soya products, beans, flaxseeds, barley, spinach, broccoli, carrots, prunes, rice, and pears. As you can see, some foods contain both insoluble and soluble fibre. Eat these and get double the health benefits!

    So that is your "what are carbohydrates?" question answered hopefully. How about some carb tips?

    1) Choose whole foods over refined foods

    Whole grains, whole fruits, and other wholesome foods have more nutrients and fewer calories than refined or processed foods. That's because the refining process strips ingredients of their nutritional value and adds refined sugar. When you eat these foods, you end up consuming mostly "empty" calories.

    2) Find other ways to satisfy your cravings

    Fresh fruit is incredibly sweet, helps suppress your appetite, and packs a lot of nutrients. Raw vegetables can satisfy your need to crunch just as easily as chips. Nuts and seeds can help satisfy a need for something salty. Plain popcorn is a great snack because it's a whole grain.

    3) Read food labels

    Pay close attention to fibre content. Make sure the ingredients section lists the word "whole" before any type of grain (i.e. whole oats, whole wheat). Keep away from foods listing sugar as the first or second ingredient, or that list several sugars. (Hint: any word ending in –ose is a sugar.)

    Most simple and complex carbohydrates come from plant foods so if you are interested in a plant based diet, then getting your carb quota is easy!

    Just be sure to load up on naturally occurring carbs. You'll feel fuller, you'll have more sustained energy, you'll be more regular (eliminate those toxins!!), you'll lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes, and you'll feel better overall.

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