Carbohydrates: benefits, types, sources and side effects

Carbohydrates, often referred to as carbohydrates, are one of the three main macronutrients essential to the human body, alongside proteins and fats. These organic compounds are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, forming various sugars, starches and fibers. Carbohydrates are a crucial source of energy, fueling our daily activities and bodily functions. They play a fundamental role in maintaining blood sugar levels and constitute a preferred source of energy for the brain. Beyond energy, carbohydrates also contribute to cellular structures and can be found in a wide range of foods, from grains and fruits to vegetables and dairy products, influencing our food choices and overall health.

What are the different types of carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, the body’s main source of energy, can be classified into two main types: simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (starches and fiber).

What are simple carbohydrates?

These are quickly digested sugars found in foods like table sugar (sucrose), fruit sugars (fructose), and milk sugars (lactose). They provide quick energy but can cause blood sugar spikes if consumed excessively.

What are complex carbohydrates?

These are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules and are found in foods like grains, legumes and starchy vegetables. Complex carbohydrates provide sustained energy and fiber, supporting digestive health.

Legumes are packed with nutrients and can help prevent obesity. Image provided by: Shutterstock
  • Dietary fiber: A subtype of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, cannot be completely broken down by human digestive enzymes. It aids digestion, regulates blood sugar and promotes a feeling of satiety. Rich sources of fiber include whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Why do you need carbs?

Carbohydrates are a fundamental dietary element essential for several critical functions in the body. According to the expert, carbohydrates are the main source of energy. When consumed, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which fuels cells, tissues and organs. This energy is vital for physical activities, from simple daily tasks to intense workouts. Additionally, carbohydrates play a crucial role in brain function. Glucose derived from carbohydrates is the brain’s primary fuel source, supporting cognitive processes, concentration and mental alertness.

Carbohydrates also contribute to digestive health. Dietary fiber, a type of carbohydrate found in foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, facilitates regular bowel movements, prevents constipation and supports a healthy gut microbiome. Overall, carbohydrates are necessary for energy, brain function, digestive health, and physical performance.

What foods contain carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are found in various foods, mainly in the form of sugars, starches and fiber. Common sources of carbohydrates include:

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Cereals: Bread, pasta, rice, oats and cereals
Legumes: beans, lentils and peas
Fruits: apples, bananas, oranges and berries
Vegetables: potatoes, carrots, broccoli and spinach
Dairy products: milk and yogurt
Sugars and sweets: Candies, sodas and desserts

What carbs are considered unhealthy or “bad”?

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Simple carbohydrates, often found in sugary snacks, sugary drinks and processed foods, are considered unhealthy. They cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, followed by drops, contributing to weight gain and health problems like diabetes.

What are good carbohydrates?

The types of carbohydrates considered good are complex carbohydrates. They are typically found in whole, unprocessed foods and provide sustained energy as well as essential fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Can you lose weight by eating carbohydrates?

Yes, you can lose weight by eating carbs. The key to weight loss is to maintain a calorie deficit, where you consume fewer calories than you burn. Carbohydrates are a source of energy and can be part of a balanced diet. Choosing complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, rich in fiber and nutrients, can help control hunger and provide sustained energy, making it easier to maintain a calorie deficit. However, it is essential to monitor portion sizes and overall calorie intake.

carbohydrates for weight loss
Choose complex carbohydrates for weight loss. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

What happens to your body if you don’t eat enough carbs?

If you don’t consume enough carbohydrates, your body can suffer several consequences. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, and when they are insufficient, it can lead to fatigue, weakness, and decreased physical and mental performance. Additionally, the body may begin to break down proteins and fats for energy, which could lead to muscle loss and ketone production, leading to a state called ketosis. Prolonged carbohydrate deficiency can negatively affect metabolism and hormonal balance, leading to imbalances like insulin resistance. It is essential to include an appropriate amount of carbohydrates in your diet to support overall health and energy levels.

What are the side effects of overconsumption of carbohydrates?

Overconsumption of carbohydrates, especially refined and simple carbohydrates, can lead to various health problems. Excessive consumption of sugary foods and drinks can lead to weight gain and increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. High-carb diets can cause rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar levels, leading to mood swings, fatigue and food cravings. Additionally, a diet high in refined carbohydrates may lack essential nutrients and fiber, contributing to nutritional deficiencies and digestive problems.

How many carbs should I eat daily?

The recommended daily carbohydrate intake varies based on individual factors such as age, activity level and health goals. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim for about 45 to 65 percent of their daily calories to come from carbohydrates. This typically translates to 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates in a 2,000 calorie diet.

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