Ask Our Dietician: The Complete Guide To Carbs
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients found in food alongside proteins and fats.. Carbohydrates serve as a primary source of energy for the human body.
Carbohydrates come in various forms, including:
Simple Carbohydrates: These are also known as sugars and can be found naturally in foods like fruits (fructose) and milk (lactose). Simple sugars can also be added to many processed foods and beverages as refined sugars or high-fructose corn syrup.
Complex Carbohydrates: These are found in foods like grains (e.g., rice, wheat), legumes (e.g., beans, lentils), vegetables, and some fruits (e.g., bananas, apples). Complex carbohydrates are typically rich in fiber, which is important for digestive health.
What are the Functions of Carbs?
Carbohydrates serve several essential functions in the body:
Energy Source: Carbohydrates are the body's preferred and most readily available source of energy. When consumed, they are broken down into glucose (a simple sugar) and used for immediate energy or stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles for future use.
Brain Function: Glucose derived from carbohydrates is vital for brain function. The brain relies on a constant supply of glucose to function optimally.
Muscle Function: Muscles use glycogen, the stored form of glucose, for energy during physical activity. Carbohydrates help support athletic performance and recovery.
Digestive Health: Fiber, a type of carbohydrate found in certain foods, is crucial for maintaining a healthy digestive system. It adds bulk to stool, promotes regular bowel movements, and can help prevent conditions like constipation.
Blood Sugar Regulation: Consuming carbohydrates with fiber and in balanced meals can help regulate blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of glucose. This is particularly important for individuals with diabetes.
Why is it important to consume carbohydrates in moderation?
Consuming carbohydrates in moderation is important for several reasons related to overall health and well-being:
Weight Management: Excessive consumption of carbohydrates, especially refined and simple carbohydrates like sugary snacks and sugary beverages, can contribute to weight gain. These types of carbs can lead to rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, which can increase hunger and promote overeating.
Blood Sugar Control: Carbohydrates are the primary source of glucose (sugar) in the body. Consuming too many carbohydrates at once, especially those with a high glycemic index, can cause rapid increases in blood sugar levels. Over time, this can contribute to insulin resistance and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Cardiovascular Health: A diet high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. High sugar intake can lead to elevated triglycerides, reduced levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, and increased inflammation—all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular problems.
Dental Health: Sugary and starchy foods can promote tooth decay and gum disease when consumed in excess. Bacteria in the mouth feed on sugars and produce acid, which can erode tooth enamel.
Energy Balance: While carbohydrates are an important source of energy, excessive consumption of high-calorie carbs can lead to an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure, potentially leading to weight gain and reduced physical activity.
Nutrient Density: Foods high in refined carbohydrates often lack essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. Consuming these foods in excess can displace healthier options that provide a wider range of nutrients.
Gut Health: A diet overly reliant on refined carbohydrates and lacking in fiber can negatively impact gut health. Dietary fiber from complex carbohydrates supports a healthy gut microbiome and promotes regular bowel movements.
Steady Energy Levels: Consuming carbohydrates in moderation, particularly complex carbohydrates that provide a steady release of energy, helps maintain stable blood sugar levels, and prevents energy crashes and cravings.
It's important to note that not all carbohydrates are equal, and the source matters. Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, are generally more nutritious and provide sustained energy without causing rapid blood sugar spikes. On the other hand, refined and simple carbohydrates, like sugary snacks and beverages, should be consumed sparingly.
What are the best sources of carbohydrates?
The best sources of carbohydrates are those that provide a combination of energy, essential nutrients, and dietary fiber while promoting overall health and well-being. Here are some excellent sources of carbohydrates:
Whole Grains: Whole grains are a rich source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They include options like:
Brown rice: Higher in fiber and nutrients compared to white rice.
Quinoa: A complete protein source with a good balance of carbohydrates.
Oats: Contain beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber that supports heart health.
Whole wheat: Used in whole wheat bread, pasta, and cereals.
Barley: Contains both soluble and insoluble fiber and is versatile for soups and salads.
Legumes: Legumes are not only a great source of carbohydrates but also provide plant-based protein, fiber, and various vitamins and minerals. Some examples include:
Lentils: High in protein and fiber, lentils are versatile for soups, stews, and salads.
Chickpeas: Used in dishes like hummus, falafel, and as an ingredient in salads.
Black beans: Popular in Latin American and Mexican cuisine.
Kidney beans: Commonly used in chili and bean salads.
Vegetables: Many vegetables are rich in carbohydrates and fiber while being low in calories. Some carbohydrate-rich veggies include:
Sweet potatoes: A nutritious source of complex carbs and vitamins like vitamin A.
Corn: Contains both carbohydrates and fiber.
Peas: Provide carbohydrates, fiber, and protein.
Butternut squash: Rich in complex carbs and vitamins.
Fruits: Fruits are a natural source of carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Opt for a variety of fruits, including:
Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc.
Apples: A good source of fiber and vitamins.
Bananas: Rich in potassium and carbohydrates.
Citrus fruits: Oranges, grapefruits, and others are high in vitamin C.
Whole Grain Products: Choose whole grain versions of bread, pasta, and cereal to increase your carbohydrate intake with added fiber and nutrients.
Dairy: Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and kefir contain lactose, a natural sugar, making them a source of carbohydrates. Opt for plain or low-fat versions to avoid added sugars.
Nuts and Seeds: While primarily sources of healthy fats and protein, nuts and seeds also contain some carbohydrates. They provide essential nutrients and can be part of a balanced diet.
Root Vegetables: Vegetables like carrots, beets, and turnips are carbohydrate-rich options that can be roasted, steamed, or used in various dishes.
A balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods along with portion control and attention to the quality of carbohydrates can help support overall health.
Individual carbohydrate needs can vary based on factors such as age, activity level, and health goals, so it's advisable to consult with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian for personalized guidance.
Nashville Weight Loss Solutions Registered Dietician, Tiffany Adams, RD, LD, can help with this personalized guidance. Tiffany runs our STAR Coaching Program. Our STAR (Start Transforming and Achieve Results) Coaching Program provides the education and accountability you need to develop healthy eating habits and lose weight. To learn more about our STAR Coaching Program or to schedule a consultation with Tiffany, please call us at (615) 342-5820 or complete our contact form.