carbohydrates general overview image

Understanding Carbohydrates

Not all carbs are equal! In this article I aim to provide a general overview of carbohydrates, their function and which sources to consider in your diet.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the three main food groups collectively referred to as macronutrients.

In everyday life, we know carbs as everything from fruit, root vegetables, pizza bases, gummy bears, breads, pastas, lentils, beans, cookie dough ice-cream etc.

So it’s pretty clear: not all carbs are the same. And because of this (and without getting technical), owing to their different structures, different carbs have different effects on the body.

What’s the Function of Carbohydrates?

When we eat carbs, they get broken down into things called ‘monosaccharides’ or ‘simple sugars’. Simple sugars include fructose, galactose, ribose, mannose and glucose.

Glucose (one of the end products of carbohydrate consumption) is the building block that allows for our cells to function & make energy.

It’s important to acknowledge that proteins & fats can provide the body with glucose as well. This is done through a process known as gluconeogenesis, basically meaning to make carbohydrate out of something that is not carbohydrate. Because of gluconeogenesis we can actually survive without an intake of carbohydrate, and some individuals may actually thrive on a very low carbohydrate diet and in some instances extremely low carbohydrate diets can be used as a therapeutic tool such as with epilepsy and brain tumors.

How do our Bodies use Carbohydrates?

As highlighted above, when we eat carbs, they get broken down into things called ‘monosaccharides’ or ‘simple sugars’, one of which is glucose.

As we absorb carbohydrate in the form of glucose, our blood sugar levels increase. This results in the release of insulin which helps to move sugars from the blood into our cells where it can either be stored (in the form of glycogen) or used to make energy. Interestingly insulin secretion first starts before glucose enters our blood stream as cells in the gut sense the ingestion of carbohydrates triggering an initial insulin response in preparation for the absorption of glucose.

Carbohydrate Considerations

Blood Sugar

If you have any existing blood sugar issues such as Diabetes then it’s essential to pay close attention to the quantity and quality of carbohydrate you eat whilst also tuning in with any symptoms you may experience afterwards. This is usually really helpful when establishing your own personal carbohydrate intake. When dealing with diabetes or any blood sugar dysregulation, we’d typically recommend choosing carbohydrates based more on non-starchy vegetables, some starchy veg and some low glycemic fruit, whilst on the most part avoiding highly processed & refined carbohydrate choices. Easier said than done!

IBS

If you’ve been labeled with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and experience symptoms such as frequent bloating, abdominal pain, cramping, loose stools, constipation or alternating between the two, you may want to consider the role that food is potentially playing. Perhaps you’ve noticed that seemingly healthy foods such as fruit or vegetables exacerbate symptoms? This might be because of certain imbalances in your gut. If this is the case further investigation is usually required.

Digestive Health

When dealing with digestive issues, what we often find is that gluten (which is actually a mixture of two proteins found in many grains) can cause digestive issues, even with people who don’t have coeliac disease, often termed ‘non celiac gluten sensitivity’. Either that or the foods that gluten is predominantly found in (crackers, biscuits, cakes, bread etc) are the issue because they are highly processed and are causing issues unrelated to a gluten allergy or sensitivity.

What carbohydrates should I eat more of?

Now that we’ve acknowledge just how individual establishing carb consumption is, let’s get down to figuring out what type & quantity of carb intake might be best for you.

To begin with, let’s look at the different types of carbohydrates. We’ve got:

Nutrient-dense & carbohydrate-dense foods such as root vegetables (sweet potato, beetroot, carrots, parsnips), certain grains (quinoa, wild rices, amaranth) and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans).

Nutrient-dense & low-carbohydrate foods such as non-starchy vegetables (artichokes, aubergine, courgette, cucumber, mushrooms, mange tout, tomatoes etc).

Nutrient-lacking & high-carbohydrate foods such as sweets, chocolate, baked goods, jams and processed foods.

What we’d typically recommend is including the nutrient-dense, low & high-carbohydrate foods whilst for the most part, limiting the nutrient-lacking but high-carbohydrate foods. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. As stated in the description: the nutrient-dense options are exactly that: full of nutrients, thus helping our bodies to function optimally.
  2. The nutrient-dense options are generally higher in fibre. Sufficient fibre in our diets has numerous benefits, including weight loss, stabilising blood sugar & it provides a great source of food for the trillions of beneficial gut bugs that hang out in our gut.
  3. The nutrient lacking options tend to cause fluctuations in our blood sugar which then has knock-on effects in other areas of health including poor mood & sex hormone imbalances, and weight gain when consumed in caloric excess.

Example carbohydrate foods to choose from

Nutrient Dense, higher carb options

  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Millet
  • Amaranth
  • All beans
  • All lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • All root vegetables
  • All fruits

Nutrient Dense, high fiber, low carb options

  • Runner beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Sprouts
  • Bok choy
  • Radicchio
  • Bean sprouts
  • Green beans
  • Okra
  • Snow peas
  • Aubergine
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Cucumber
  • Courgette
  • Herbs
  • Bamboo shoots
  • Green leafy veg
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Leeks
  • Radish
  • Celery
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Chilli
  • Mushrooms
  • Mangetout
  • Artichokes

Carbohydrates will also be found in a whole bunch of other foods as well including things like nuts, dairy, seeds etc at varying levels. On the most part when choosing carbs, you are considering the above listed foods then of course of more highly refined and processed options that come from foods made from or with sugar and flour, which in my opinion should be limited for most individuals.

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