What Are Good Carbs: Everything You Need to Know
Many weight watchers try to minimize their intake of carbohydrates. However, it is important to recognize that carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ are also important for a well-balanced and healthy diet. They have a number of important functions to perform that can lead to overall health. Knowing what carbs are good for you should help lead a healthier lifestyle.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are large molecules. Because of their size, people call them ‘macronutrients’. They are one of three macronutrients that are necessary for the optimal functioning of the human body. The other two are proteins and fats.
Carbs contain three fundamental elements. These are carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. The proportion of hydrogen to oxygen is almost always 2 to 1. In biochemistry, carbohydrates are also known as saccharides. They include starches, sugars, and cellulose or fiber. There are four types of saccharides, depending on the number of saccharide units that they have. A single saccharide unit will have at least three molecules containing carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.
The types of carbs include monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharides, and oligosaccharides. Examples of monosaccharides are glucose and fructose. Examples of disaccharides are lactose and sucrose. Glycogen, starch, and cellulose are three examples of polysaccharides. Two good examples of oligosaccharides are fructo-oligosaccharide and maltotriose.
Knowing the different types of saccharides will help pave the way for understanding what are bad carbs and what are good carbs. We will go into this later.
What Types of Food Contain Carbohydrates?
There are many food items that contain carbs. They include grains, fruits, dairy, beans, sweets, and vegetables.
Both refined and whole grains contain carbs. These include oats, whole wheat, quinoa, and rice, among others. Vegetables also contain carbs. However, there are those that have fewer carbohydrates than others. Examples of these are leafy greens, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. There are also vegetables that contain more carbs, often in the form of starch. These include corn, sweet potatoes, and potatoes.
Lentils, soybeans, black beans, lentils, and chickpeas are good sources of carbohydrates. Milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt also contain varying amounts of carbohydrates. Anything that is sweet to the taste can have carbs in it. Candies, cookies, and ice creams are examples.
What is the Importance of Carbohydrates?
As mentioned, carbs are important for optimal nutrition. They provide the body with the fuel that it needs to perform its different tasks. Two of the most important organ systems that rely on carbohydrates for energy are the muscular and the central nervous systems.
The cells of the brain need glucose for them to function properly. This is important in improving different cognitive functions, like decision-making, memory, learning, and problem-solving. It can also improve spatial memory and visual attention. Carbs can also help improve one’s mood by increasing dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. This can help reduce anxiety, anger, and depression.
Muscle tissues also rely on glucose for energy. The body can metabolize carbohydrates a lot faster than fats and proteins. This makes carbs a readily-available energy source. Having said that, carbohydrates also help prevent the body from using protein as a source of energy. This allows the body to use proteins for structural and biochemical purposes. Carbohydrates also facilitate the more efficient metabolism of fat.
Weight watchers are always told to skip carbohydrates if they want to lose weight. However, if you know what carbs are good for you, saccharides can be your friend in losing weight. There are carbs that contain less calories and more fiber. Dietary fiber can help increase the bulk of stomach contents without a commensurate increase in calorie intake. This bulk will make you feel fuller. It allows you to eat less.
Dietary fiber can also help in lowering bad cholesterol levels. The digestion of food molecules requires the secretion of bile acids and other digestive enzymes. Cholesterol is an important component of bile acids. The liver produces bile acids by drawing cholesterol molecules from the blood. This leads to a reduction in the level of bad cholesterol in the blood. This can have an impact on the health of the heart and the blood vessels.
How Does the Body Process Carbohydrates?
When we eat carbohydrate-containing foods, they get broken down into their component molecules or saccharide units. Monosaccharides are the smallest units that carbohydrates can be broken down into. The duodenum absorbs these monosaccharides into the bloodstream. They go to the liver, where they get converted into glucose.
All of these saccharide units will end up as glucose in the liver. The liver then sends out the ‘processed’ glucose to the different cells of the body. Insulin moves the glucose from the blood and into the different cells.
Any glucose molecule that doesn’t get utilized by the cells will go back to the liver where they get converted into glycogen. Some of the unused glucose in skeletal muscles also get converted into glycogen. The body will also convert any excess glucose not stored as glycogen into fat.
If there is a sudden need for energy, the body will mobilize the stored glycogen first. It converts it back to glucose so that cells can use it. Glucose molecules that have been converted into fat do not need to revert back as glucose. The body can utilize the fat as an energy source.
Without carbohydrates in the diet, the body will have to use protein for energy. This can have disastrous consequences. Proteins are important in the formation of tissues and other substances. If the body uses protein for energy, then these tissues and organs will suffer. Using protein as fuel can also damage the kidneys.
Simple Carbohydrates and Complex Carbohydrates
We now know that there are four general types of carbohydrates, depending on the number of saccharide units that they have. We can also simplify this further by grouping these carbs into two. These are the simple carbohydrates and the complex carbohydrates.
It should be obvious that simple carbohydrates will refer to saccharides with only one or two saccharide or sugar units. These include monosaccharides and disaccharides. Complex carbohydrates will include those with three or more sugar units or saccharide units.
The main difference between the two is in their digestion and absorption. Simple carbs are a lot easier to digest and absorb than complex carbs. The body only needs to process fewer saccharide units before they reach their simplest forms.
As we have already learned, the body will use these monosaccharides to produce glucose. It is for this reason that simple carbs are best for boosting one’s energy. They get absorbed faster. As such, the body is able to utilize them as energy. The energy does not last very long, however. On the other hand, the energy that comes from complex carbohydrates is more stable.
Simple carbs are known for producing glucose spikes or sugar highs. This can lead to hyperglycemia, one of the conditions that can lead to the development of diabetes. There are also studies that show simple carbs can increase people’s risk of heart disease. It is for this reason that simple carbs are often labeled as ‘bad’.
Some people prefer to call simple carbs as refined carbs and complex carbs as whole carbs. Whole carbs do not undergo processing. Hence, they are able to retain their full nutrient profile as well as their dietary fiber content. On the other hand, refined carbs undergo substantial processing that many of their nutrients and fiber are lost.
What Are the Good and Bad Carbohydrates?
Almost everything that we eat contains carbohydrates. From fruits and sweets, confectionery, dairy, and vegetables, they all have carbs. However, we also know that simple carbs are not the best choice when it comes to energy. A better choice will be complex carbs. So, what are the good and bad types of carbohydrates?
- Good Carbs
The number of sugar units that a carbohydrate has is not the only indicator whether it is good or bad. They should also contain more nutrients and dietary fiber. In general, good carbs have exceptional nutritional value. Examples of these include whole grains, legumes, vegetables, beans, and fruits.
Good carbohydrates should also contain low to moderate amounts of calories. It should not have refined grains and/or sugars. As much as possible, good carbs should have high dietary fiber content and low in both saturated fat and sodium. It should also not contain trans fats and cholesterol.
- Bad Carbs
Carbohydrates that are bad for your health are those that have high calorie content. They also contain large amounts of refined sugars, such as fruit juices, corn syrup, and white sugar. They can also contain refined grains. Examples of bad carbs are white bread, sodas, white rice, pastries, highly-processed food items, and other food products that contain white or processed flour.
Bad carbs do not contain that many nutrients. They are also low in dietary fiber. Many of these food products are high in sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
Carbohydrates are macronutrients that are essential for life. However, it is important to choose the right kinds of carbohydrates if you want to optimize the many benefits that this macronutrient provides.