Carbohydrates – Part 1: What & Where

Carbohydrates -Part 1: What & Where 

Previously, we talked about why a growing body needs food and how calories are the chemistry that provides that much-needed energy. and how to determine how much we need to be fueled. We learned that calories come in four varieties – carbohydrate, fat, protein, and alcohol and how to figure how many of everything we should be eating. In this article, we’ll dig into carbohydrates a bit more to understand what they are, what they do for us, and where they come from.

WHAT THEY ARE- Defining’ Carbohydrates’ – The Basic Science 

Before we dive into the wide world of carbohydrates, let’s make sure we have a clear definition of what they are.

Popular culture refers to things like grains and sugars as carbs. However, carbohydrates refer to the chemistry that make up any plant-based food. Fruits, vegetables, grains, and sugars are all made of carbohydrates. 

When we talk about carbs, we are referring to the chemistry of the food (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen). 

All carbs are created from sugar molecules (glucose, fructose, galactose). What changes between the types of carbohydrates (sugar, starch, and fiber) are the number of molecules and the complexity of the bond between the molecules, making them easier or harder to break apart. 

As those molecules bind together in various ways, they form compounds we’re more familiar with. These include things such as starch (found in potato, grains, corn, etc.), fiber (something we don’t digest), sugars (found in milk, yogurt, fruits and sweeteners like honey, syrup, cane sugar). 

And while we are going to get further into all the different types of carbohydrates and what they are, let’s make sure we know what they do for us first. The short answer: A lot of good. 

This image shows the different building blocks of carbs.

WHAT THEY DO FOR US

There is a lot of confusion and concern about carbohydrates these days. So before we get any further, let’s be clear: Carbohydrates are not evil!

Carbohydrates are the perfect package of nutrients for the body and provide many benefits such as: 

  1. Energy  – Our body can quickly break down and use energy from carbohydrates to think and move. Fat and protein take more time and effort, making them a lower quality fuel source. Our brain alone uses around 400 calories of carbohydrate per day (or approximately 120 grams).  
  2. Fiber – Found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber cannot be digested. It keeps us regular in the bathroom, prevents disease, and stabilizes energy. It also keeps us fuller longer. Beneficial for GI health, disease prevention, and feeling fuller longer. You cannot get fiber from animal-based foods. Fiber, by definition, is a type of carbohydrate. 
  3. Antioxidants – Prevent against free radicals that can cause disease. You won’t find antioxidants in animal-based foods. 
  4. Protein – Plant-based proteins can meet all of our protein needs without the need to eat meat. But have to be appropriately paired for good nutrition (more on this in the protein post – coming soon!)
  5. Vitamins and minerals  – Carbohydrates provide a wide variety of nutrients, including b-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin) used to convert food to energy and support our nervous system, calcium for our bones, iron support oxygen transport in the blood, and folate helps us produce red blood cells. 
Nutrition is one piece of our fitness journey. See how schools use PLT4M to take a holistic approach to fitness and training.

Carbohydrate = Energy

As you can see, at the top of the list is the energy we can get from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for the body. Ideally, people should have at least 50-75 percent of their daily energy needs from carbohydrates – a mixture of fruits, vegetables, and grains. 

When we eat something with carbohydrates, whether it’s a fruit, grain, vegetable, or sweetener like sugar, our body can quickly break down the molecules of carbohydrate and turn them into blood glucose (aka blood sugar). 

The blood glucose is then transported to the muscles, brain, and vital organs to convert to energy (or ATP). Any unused glucose gets stored for later, and when those storage spots are full, it can convert it to body fat for later use. In other words, energy now and energy for later. 

MYTH BUSTING: And before anyone panics when they see body fat, let’s dispel another myth. Our body is constantly putting nutrients in and out of storage. It never “throws” them away. This is a natural and normal part of human physiology and not something unique to carbs and blood glucose. They are NOT more likely to become body fat than any other nutrient.

Different Types Of Energy 

One of the benefits of carbohydrate-rich foods is that they can give you energy quickly. So if you’re trying to fuel up to train, study, or go about your day, carbohydrates are the tool of choice. 

The downside is that because carbohydrates are digested and absorbed quickly when we eat a meal that is purely carbohydrate, we tend to feel hungry, sooner as opposed to when we eat foods with more protein and fat, we feel fuller longer. For example, a plate of pasta with salad is filling, but it likely won’t keep you full as long as a plate of pasta with chicken and salad. 

Sugars provide energy the fastest. But because sugar is broken down and absorbed quickly, that leaves us looking to replace that energy much faster than when we have starch. If we add fiber to the equation, we get even better-sustained energy. And if we add protein and/or fat, we get the most sustained energy (but the hardest to break down). 

But you don’t need chemistry to explain that to you. You can feel the difference when you drink a can of soda vs eat a turkey sandwich. Both have the same carbohydrate content, but where that carbohydrate comes from and what it’s paired with makes all the difference. 

This image shows the duration of fulness based on the time of food source.

What Comes Next? 

As you can see, there is a lot of overlap when it comes to talking about carbohydrates. Hopefully, you can see that carbs are good for us and provide us energy and the fuel to live our lives. And the next question that almost always comes is how to decipher between “good” and “bad” carbs? 

Carbohydrates are not “good” or “bad” – they’re just different chemistries with different purposes. Instead of looking at carbohydrates as good and bad, you will notice that we have talked a lot about sugar, starch, and fiber. 

In our next post, we will break down those three types of carbohydrates in more detail. We will talk about where to find them, and what they do for us! Understanding the chemistry allows you to better plan and balance your meals for health and performance.

MEET THE AUTHOR: REBECCA TOUTANT, MA, RDN, LDN, CDE

Rebecca is a registered dietitian, personal trainer, and certified diabetes educator living and working in the Boston area.

Learn more about Rebecca and her background here: Fuel 4 Fitness – Rebecca Toutant

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