What are carbohydrates and why are they good for your body

Published on December 30, 2020 by Cori Grămescu


A balanced diet does not avoid carbohydrates but makes a good food choice or selection that covers needs and preferences to reach a healthy optimum, and there are some key facts i like to share with you.

You may love them, resent them or fear them, but it’s more and more difficult to simply view them as food. The internet launches a new opinion about them every day and every diet in the last 30 years has offered a radical position regarding carbs. We have measured them, limited them, sorted them by glycemic index, reduced them to a minimum or binged on them, so no wonder you may feel insecure about whether or not carbs are good for you.

What exactly are the mighty Carbs?

From a nutritional perspective, carbs can be classified as starches, fibers, and sugars. Starches, often referred to as complex carbohydrates, can be found in grains, legumes and starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, sugars, or the simple carbs, are natural sugars in vegetables (dextrose), fruits (fructose), milk (lactose), and honey (glucose) and fibers, that the body cannot digest and absorb, but they add bulk to the stool and help activate digestive transit. Fibers are found in cereal bran, vegetables and fruits.

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients, along with proteins and fats, that make up the daily foods you eat and the way your body absorbs food.

Chemically speaking, a carbohydrate represents a bio-molecule, made up of Carbon (C), Hydrogen (H) and Oxygen (O) atoms and it is a synonym of saccharide, a group that includes sugars, starch, and cellulose. Saccharides are also further divided into four chemical groups: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, monosaccharides and disaccharides, representing the smallest types of carbohydrates (having a lower molecular weight) and being commonly referred to as sugars. Enough chemistry?

Avoid processed foods and look for fibers

Other than the naturally occurring sugars, thanks to the increased food processing that accompanies our life, we need to talk about added sugars, which can be found in processed foods, syrups, sugary drinks, and sweets. From naturally occurring fructose (honey) to processed versions of simple carbs – agave syrup, maple syrup, coconut sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, apple concentrate, molasses and all sorts of sugar alternatives, added sugars are to be limited together with highly processed, nutrient-void foods.

Last, but not least, fibers are the type of carbohydrate the body does not absorb, as fiber cannot be broken down into simpler molecules, like the other carbohydrates, and instead, it passes undigested through the digestive system. But fibers have so many benefits for our health!

There are two types of fiber – soluble fiber, that creates gels after it dissolves in water and insoluble fiber, cellulose, that remains intact in contact with water.

Soluble fiber means it dissolves in water and helps regulate the metabolism by lowering glucose levels and also helps reduce “bad” cholesterol (oats, nuts, legumes, apples, blueberries…), the other category of fiber is insoluble fiber that does not dissolve in water and creates stool bulk, helping the bowel movement and regularity, thus, preventing constipation through foods like root vegetables, cereal bran and green leafy vegetables .

Let’s not forget about the cellulose, a polysaccharide found in the cell walls of all plants, and one of the main components of insoluble fiber. Resistant starch and inulin, are other polysaccharides insoluble fibers which and represent the favorite food of good bacteria in large intestine microbiota, being metabolized to short-chain fatty acids.

Do we need carbs?

With the myriad of “anti-carb” diets, no wonder you ask yourself whether or not you should actually eat carbs.

First of all, carbohydrates’ primary role is to provide energy to your body! They are digested and further broken down into glucose. Then, the glucose in the blood is transported to cells and through a series of complex processes it produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a central molecule of our metabolism.

It is true that most of the cells can produce ATP also from fats, but the cells will always prefer carbs as their main energy source! Now, if your body has enough glucose to fulfill its current needs, the excess glucose is stored in the form of glycogen, which is found in the liver (approximately 100 g) and muscles (approximately 500 grams), for later use.

Pay attention! If your body has enough glycogen and also your glycogen stores are full, the excess carbohydrates are converted into triglyceride molecules and stored as fat.

As well, there can be situations when glucose from ingested carbohydrates is lacking, but the body is very smart and uses a process called gluconeogenesis to create glucose from available proteins in case of intense or prolonged stress and starvation.

Low-carb and ketogenic diets’ shortcomings

More than that, when carbs are not available to provide your body with the energy it needs to properly function, the brain shifts from using glucose as fuel to ketones (made from fatty acids), as its primary fuel source. The adaptation process to using ketones for energy is a grueling one, and those who follow ketogenic diets often complain of months of fatigue, hunger and over-focusing on food choices.

Keeping in mind that all diets have a comparable outcome when evaluated for longer periods of time, following low-carb or ketogenic diets may not be the most comfortable solution for most people.

Why carbs and fibers are good for your body

From our perspective, the most important aspect of carb-eating is this one: we need carbs for an optimal digestive system!

As we have mentioned above, fiber helps in lowering glucose levels and also the levels of “bad” cholesterol, it is important for the bowel movement and regularity too, preventing constipation, and also feeds the good bacteria within the intestinal microbiota. In addition, soluble fiber passes through the small intestine, it links to bile acids and prevents it to being reabsorbed (the liver uses cholesterol to make more bile acids). Thus, the heart disease risk decreases. According to studies, the risk of heart disease decreased with 9% for every additional 7 grams of dietary fiber daily consumption.

Key Carbohydrates facts

  • Carbs are body’s primary source of energy
  • Fiber promotes digestive health
  • Complex carbs contribute to hearth’s health and help prevent diabetes
  • Carbs help lower “bad cholesterol”
  • Carbs help maintain a healthy muscle mass

Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates!

As the dietary guidelines recommend, carbohydrate intake should represent 40 to 55% of our total daily calories, but this refers mostly to naturally occuring, unprocessed carbs.

  • Choose fruits and vegetables rich in fiber! Choose whole fresh fruits and vegetables, and if you buy them frozen or canned, opt for products without added sugar. Aim for seasonal, local products as much as possible.
  • Avoid refined grains and flours! When you choose to eat cereal-based products (bread, pastry) opt for products made entirely from whole-grains, as white flours, other than being nutritionally void, are often “bleached” using chemical additives that make them whiter.
  • Don’t ignore legumes! Peas, beans and lentils are some of the most complex and nutritious available foods! Low in fat, high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium, and rich in fiber. More than that, legumes are a good source of protein and they help keep you full longer thanks to their unique composition.

Limit added sugars as much as possible! 

In small amounts, there is no danger, but can you stop when you should? There are no health benefits to consume any added sugar! The recommended daily intake of added sugar for adults is 25-35 grams per day, that means less than half a can of soda.

Make sure to always read the small nutritional label on the back of packaged foods to determine the added sugar content of what you eat, since added sugars are found in bread, deli and cured meat, dairy products, cereal flakes, ketchup and sauces, soda and snacks. Pretty much all packaged foods contain added sugars, as it is used to preserve and glaze the foods we eat.

So, don’t be afraid of carbohydrates, just choose wisely!

This article respects our Editorial Policy