Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ are an energy source in food that comes from starch, sugar and cellulose. Carbohydrates provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber in the diet. The current recommendations suggest 45 to 65 percent of daily calories come from these types of foods. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends choosing foods containing complex carbohydrates over refined sources most often for maximum benefits. You can find healthful carbohydrate sources in foods like wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye and in fruits, vegetables and legumes. Read on to learn more about the importance of including the right type of carbohydrates in your diet.
There are two types of carbohydrates; those in their natural food form comprised of a long chain of simple carbs (three or more) linked together which is referred to as “complex” and those that are already in smaller pieces (one or two sugars), referred to as “simple.” Complex carbs are foods, which contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, potatoes, beans, peas and lentils are examples of complex carbs.
Simple carbs are often softer in texture – white bread, white rice and baked goods. Soda, candy and other sweeteners like table sugar and honey are also simple carbs. These easily digested carbohydrates are rapidly absorbed, causing a spike in blood sugar and quick boost in energy. Refined flours have been stripped of some of their natural, high fiber content including the bran, germ or endosperm. Because of this processing, they are digested faster and more easily and deliver fewer amounts of healthful nutrients. Fruits, vegetables and dairy are also technically made of simple carbohydrates but because of the fiber, protein and other nutrients, they act more like complex carbohydrates in the body and should be consumed daily.
Carbohydrate digestion begins in your mouth as special enzymes in the saliva start to break complex carbohydrates down. The product that continues passes through the stomach and into the small intestines where more enzymes break carbohydrates down into the simplest form of sugars that the body can use for energy. Though all types of carbohydrates eventually break down into blood glucose, complex carbohydrates take longer to complete this process and offer vital nutrients the body needs along the way. They also offer indigestible fibers that aren’t broken down and instead aid in gut health and elimination of stool. When simple carbohydrates are consumed, they offer little nutrition and are broken down rapidly causing a sharp spike in blood sugar and the hormones needed to complete carbohydrate digestion.