Carbohydrates (carbs) are a macronutrient naturally found in food. They come in three types: sugar, starch, and fiber. You might’ve heard that carbs are bad for you, but they’re an essential part of a healthy diet. They provide most of the energy your body needs to function properly.
Carbohydrates can be either simple or complex. Simple carbs are both sugars and some forms of starch, such as white rice. Your body breaks them down more quickly than complex carbs. This means that they’re a good source of quick energy. However, eating too many simple carbs can negatively impact your health because they cause blood sugar to spike quickly.
Complex carbs include some forms of starch and fiber. These have long chains of simple carbs that get broken down by your body before being digested. This means they provide energy for the body more slowly than simple carbs, but they also provide energy for a longer time period.
Complex carbs are also less likely than simple carbs to be converted into fat. They don’t raise blood sugar levels as much.
Carbohydrates are essential for your body to work properly. Their main function is providing the energy your body needs. They have many positive effects, too.
When carbs are digested, they’re turned into glucose. Glucose is the main source of energy for your body. Simple carbs can provide a quick burst of energy, but complex carbs will provide energy for your body for a longer period of time because they release the sugar into your bloodstream more slowly.
Fat and protein can also provide energy for your body, but carbs provide the most energy per gram.
While the glucose from carbs is essential for everything in your body to function, it’s particularly important for brain function. Your brain uses 20 percent of your body’s energy. That’s more than any other organ. Here are more fun facts about the brain.
Decrease disease risk
Eating too many simple or processed carbs can have negative effects on your cardiovascular health, but other carbs can actually reduce your risk of disease. Complex carbs, especially fiber, are associated with lower cholesterol levels. They’re also associated with a lower risk of diabetes because they don’t lead to blood sugar spikes.
Complex carbs keep you full for long periods of time because your body breaks them down slowly. This means eating complex carbs may help you eat less and control your weight. This is especially true if you eat a lot of fiber and a moderate amount of whole grains.
Eating carbs in the form of fiber can help improve the health of your digestive system. Fiber eases constipation by making your stool easier to pass. It also reduces diarrhea by helping solidify your stool. By helping your body get rid of waste more efficiently, fiber also decreases bloating. A diet high in fiber may also reduce your chances of getting certain colon diseases, such as diverticulitis.
How they work
Every cell in your body uses glucose for energy to function properly. Sugars, such as glucose and fructose, are simple sugars. They can be absorbed into the bloodstream right from the intestine. Fructose is found in fruit.
Once simple sugars are in the bloodstream, insulin helps move glucose into your cells. The cells can then use it for energy. Insulin also helps move extra glucose into your liver and muscles, where it can be stored for future energy use, and converts glucose into fat if it can’t all be stored.
When you eat complex carbs, your body needs to break down the long chains of sugars in the carbs before it can use them for energy. Once the food gets to your small intestine, enzymes start the process of breaking down the food into glucose.
When the complex carbs are digested, the glucose enters your bloodstream. From there, it’s treated in the same way as glucose from simple carbs. But because complex carbs must be broken down first, they take longer to enter your bloodstream and provide energy for a longer period of time than simple carbs.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that between 45 and 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Of these calories, experts recommend that most come from complex whole grains, such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, and whole wheat bread.
However, you shouldn’t cut out simple carbs completely. While simple carbs in the form of added sugar, such as in soda, candy, and other sweets, aren’t good for you and should be at most 10 percent of your daily calories, there are naturally occurring simple carbs that are good for you. For example, fruit and dairy products both have natural simple carbs.
There are many good carbs to choose from, but here’s a short list of foods that are good sources of carbohydrates and the amount of carbs in a serving:
- oatmeal (not instant or presweetened): 28 grams per cup
- whole wheat bread: 20 grams per slice
- sweet potatoes: 26 grams per 5-inch long potato
- brown rice: 17 grams per half cup
- bananas: 27 grams in one medium banana
- black beans: 22 grams per half cup
- lentils: 20 grams per half cup
- apples: 25 grams in one medium apple
- chickpeas: 22 grams per half cup
- vegetables: varies by type, but generally around 12 grams per serving
Carbs are an essential part of a healthy diet. They provide your body with most of the energy it needs to work properly. However, not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbs can:
- keep you full
- help you control your weight
- help reduce your risk of diseases, such as diabetes
Choose foods such as whole grains, beans, and vegetables to get your recommended servings of carbohydrates.