All three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) get singled out and taken to extremes when it comes to our health. Especially when talking about weight loss/fat loss, but carbohydrates are the pinnacle of all the hype. Let me first start off by saying, we can’t hate one macronutrient or give one special treatment over the other because they’re all incredibly important and vital to living whole and well.
With that said, far too often you hear extremes of both cases, no-carb diets to high-carb diets, both of which have no middle ground, little flexibility, and limited longevity.
WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES?
Biologically speaking, carbohydrates are large molecules or macromolecules (hence why we call carbohydrates 1 of the 3 macronutrients), containing hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms- carbohydrates are typically stated as a saccharide, which means “sugar”. Saccharides (a.k.a. carbohydrates or sugars) are divided into 4 groups/types including monosaccharide, disaccharide, oligosaccharide, and polysaccharide. For those of you who know latin, this is easy to make out what each type is. Mono- meaning containing 1, dia- meaning 2, oligo- meaning 3-9, and poly- meaning more up to or more than 10; these are referring to how many monosaccharides (simple sugars) are in each saccharide. In a nutshell, monosaccharides and disaccharides (think of fruit or simple sugars) are digested very quickly and oligosaccharide and polysaccharide digest slowly (think of higher fiber carbs). Have I lost you yet? Good!
Monosaccharides, the building blocks of creating dia-, oligo-, and polysaccharides are 1) glucose, 2) fructose, and 3) galactose. Just some of many examples of dia-, oligo- and polysaccharides:
HOW THEY’RE USED IN OUR BODY?
Carbohydrates are our bodies preferred use of energy, we like carbohydrates for a reason! Our brains, muscle tissue, cells, etc., all utilize carbohydrates in different ways, amounts, and ratios. Remember, each gram of carbohydrate is roughly 4 calories, i.e. unites of energy.
Your body on carbohydrates:
DIGESTION OF CARBOHYDRATES
Carbohydrate digestion starts in the mouth as all digestion does, but especially with the digestive enzyme amylase helping to specifically breakdown carbohydrates, then goes into the stomach where stomach acids meets with the chyme (mixed food) and further breaks down before entering into the small intestine where again digestive enzymes are released and breaks down into monosaccharides to be absorbed in the small intestine. Ultimately, glucose goes into the liver where the liver distributes the energy- whether storing it into fat cells or utilizing it for immediate energy in other cells of the body. All other carbohydrates not absorbed in the small intestine reach the large intestine and colon, these are fibrous carbohydrates and are partially digested by bacteria. Fibre can’t be digested or absorbed like other carbohydrates, but contributes to the bulk of our stools- an important part of our digestive health!
HOW DO WE USE CARBOHYDRATES AND WHAT’S WITH ALL THOSE G-TERMS?Insulin, glycogen, gluconeogenesis- what does it all mean?! I’m touching on just the bare basics here, there is so much more science behind this!
Technically, none. The human body can survive off of other energy sources like fatty acids and amino acids, BUT it does prefer carbohydrates- and I’d recommend that too! How much you need depends on your genetics, age, gender, lifestyle, activity level, injuries, disease states, etc. ALL play a role in how many carbohydrates your body needs to fuel. In part II I’ll talk more on this with carbohydrate centered diets, in the meantime set up a one on one with me to figure out your intake with your body goals. A silly analogy but true, there’s a cozy middle ground for carbohydrate intake, just like Goldilocks you don’t too much or too little- just right!
More resources for your reading pleasure on all things carbohydrates: Krause Nutrition textbooks, Basic Medical Biochemistry, Nutrition Therapy and Pathophysiology (newest edition will contain some of my photography- cool beans!), and Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Well I hope after reading this you have a better understanding of what carbohydrates are and what they do for us. Stay tuned for part 2 where I talk about my favorite sources of carbohydrates, how to use them in meals, portions, and timing carbohydrates to work for your goals! What else would YOU like to learn about carbohydrates? Let me know so I can get to writing!
Your guide to living whole and well. Emma Olliff is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, wellness expert, food lover, and advocate for healthy living!