What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates give the body energy to go about your day’s mental and physical tasks. Digesting or metabolizing carbohydrates breaks foods down into sugars, which are also called saccharides. These molecules begin digesting in the mouth and continue through the body to be used for anything from normal cell functioning to cell growth and repair.
You’ve probably heard that some carbohydrates are considered “good” while others are “bad.” But really, it’s not so simple.
There are three main types of carbohydrates. Some carbohydrates are naturally occurring. You can find them in whole fruits and vegetables, while others are processed and refined, and either lacking in or stripped of their nutrients. Here’s the deal:
Types of carbohydrates
The three types of carbs are:
Both simple and complex carbohydrates break down into glucose (aka blood sugar). A simple carb is one that’s comprised of one or two sugar molecules, while a complex carb contains three or more sugar molecules. Fiber, on the other hand, is found in healthy carbs, but isn’t digested or broken down. It’s been shown to be good for heart health and weight management.
Naturally-occurring simple sugars are found in fruit and dairy. There are also processed and refined simple sugars that food companies may add to foods such as sodas, candy, and desserts.
Good sources of complex carbohydrates include:
Fiber is found in many healthy carbs such as:
Consuming fibrous, complex and simple carbs from naturally-occurring sources like fruit may protect you from disease and may even help you maintain your weight. These carbs include more vitamins and minerals.
However, processed and refined carbohydrates are high in calories but relatively void of nutrition. They tend to make people gain weight and may even contribute to the development of obesity-related conditions, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
For a person eating a standard 2,000 calories a day, this means that carbohydrates might make up 900 to 1,300 of those calories. This figures out to around 225 to 325 grams each day. However, your carb intake will vary based on your individual needs.
How are carbohydrates digested?
All the food you eat goes through your digestive system so it can be broken down and used by the body. Carbohydrates take a journey starting with the intake at the mouth and ending with elimination from your colon. There’s a lot that happens between the point of entry and exit.
1. The mouth
You begin to digest carbohydrates the minute the food hits your mouth. The saliva secreted from your salivary glands moistens food as it’s chewed.
Saliva releases an enzyme called amylase, which breaks down the sugars in the carbohydrates you’re eating.
2. The stomach
From there, you swallow the food now that’s it’s chewed into smaller pieces. The carbohydrates travel through your esophagus to your stomach. At this stage, the food is referred to as chyme.
You stomach makes acid to kill bacteria in the chyme before it makes its next step in the digestion journey.
3. The small intestine, pancreas, and liver
The chyme then goes from the stomach into the first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum. This causes the pancreas to release pancreatic amylase. This enzyme breaks down the chyme into dextrin and maltose.
From there, the wall of the small intestine begins to make lactase, sucrose, and maltase. These enzymes break down the sugars even further into monosaccharides or single sugars.
These sugars are the ones that are finally absorbed into the small intestine. Once they’re absorbed, they’re processed even more by the liver and stored as glycogen. Other glucose is moved through the body by the bloodstream.
The hormone insulin is released from the pancreas and allows the glucose to be used as energy.
Anything that’s left over after these digestive processes goes to the colon. It’s then broken down by intestinal bacteria. Fiber is contained in many carbohydrates and cannot be digested by the body. It reaches the colon and is then eliminated with your stools.
Medical conditions that affect
how carbohydrates are digested
There are some medical conditions that may interrupt the process of digesting carbohydrates. These conditions are usually rare and genetic, meaning they’re inherited at birth.
Galactosemia is a genetic disorder that affects how the body processes lactose, the sugar found in milk, cheese, and other dairy products. It leads to having too much of this sugar in the blood, causing complications like liver damage, learning disabilities, or reproductive issues.
This condition has also been called hereditary fructose intolerance. It affects how the body breaks down the sugars — monosaccharides — from fruits and vegetables, honey, agave, and processed foods. Symptoms include:
- chronic fatigue
Hunter syndrome is a type of inherited disorder classified under mucopolysaccharidoses (MPSs). It typically begins between the ages of 2 and 4 years old and is caused by a missing enzyme that doesn’t break down carbohydrates. Physical abilities, appearance, mental development, and organ function may all be impacted by this disorder.
Pyruvate metabolism disorders
Pyruvate dehydrogenase deficiency is a type of inherited disorder classified under pyruvate metabolism disorders. It results from too much lactase in the bloodstream.
Symptoms after consuming too many carbohydrates (or being stressed or ill) can be metabolic or neurological in nature and may begin as early as infancy.
The bottom line
The body needs carbohydrates to function properly. A diet rich in healthy whole foods should give you enough fuel to power through your day.
Be sure to include a hefty amount of complex carbohydrates, like fruits and vegetables — generally between 900 and 1,300 calories each day. Of course, this amount will vary based on your height, weight, and activity level. For your specific carbohydrate needs, it’s recommended you speak with a dietitian.
- Along with fruits and vegetables, fill your plate with whole grains instead of refined grains. These complex carbohydrate choices contain more fiber and key nutrients, like B vitamins.
- Watch for dairy products with added sugars. Low-fat milks, cheeses, and yogurts give the body needed calcium and protein, as well as other vitamins and minerals without the caloric load.
- Incorporate more beans, peas, and lentils into your day. Not only do these legumes provide you with complex carbohydrates, but they also boast impressive amounts of protein, folate, potassium, iron, and magnesium without a lot of fat.
- Read your labels. Always be on the lookout for added sugars, especially in processed foods. You should aim to get fewer than 10 percent of your calories each day from added sugars or simple carbohydrates.