Carbohydrates, also known as sugar, are the primary source of energy to the body. They constitute one of the three basic components of food. Carbohydrates play an important role in the functioning of internal organs, the nervous system, and muscles. They are the best source of energy for endurance athletics because they provide both an immediate and a time-released energy source.
In general, carbohydrates come to us from plant foods, because carbohydrates are produced by photosynthesis in plants. Animal foods do contain carbohydrates because animals store carbohydrates in their muscles. But the broad diversity of carbohydrates that are needed for optimum health are found in the plant kingdom.
Carbohydrates play an important role in helping to regulate the metabolism of protein and fat. There is also evidence that a diet too low in carbohydrates can make insulin less effective, therefore destabilizing our blood sugar levels. On the other side, a diet that has an excessively high ratio of carbohydrates to protein has also been found to be problematic. This diet is also a major factor in obesity issues.
Carbohydrates are classified according to their structure, and two basic types of carbohydrates are found in most plant foods: Simple and complex carbohydrates.
1. Simple Carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates, also known as simple sugars, are easily and quickly digested and used by the body. In this category, you have:
- Monosaccharides – such as glucose (metabolized form of sugar in the body), fructose (found in fruits, honey and some vegetables) and galactose (found in milk).
- Disacchardies – such as lactose (milk sugar), sucrose (white sugar) and maltose (malt sugar).
- Oligosaccharides – These carbohydrates are unique as they support our digestive and immune system. They enhance the growth of friendly bacteria. These are found in foods such as onions,burdock root, and asparagus, and some are found in garlic, chives, rye, Jerusalem artichoke, and banana.
2. Complex carbohydrates (starches and fibers)
Complex carbohydrates, also known as polysaccharides, include starches and nonstarches.
There are several types of starches. When eating whole, they can provide a more consistent blood sugar level than the simple sugars or refined starches foods.
Potatoes, vegetable roots and whole grains are starches but much healthier than refined flour and products, processed foods and high-sugar diets, which are associated with degenerative tissue disease and aging.
The starch amylopectin is the most common one found in foods. Glycogen is the animal-source starch contained in muscle and liver.
This category includes cellulose and hemicelluloses.
Cellulose is the main component in the plant cells and it contains glucose sugars. Humans cannot digest cellulose. They are sturdy and hard to break down. They usually help to feed the friendly bacteria in the large intestine.
Hemicellulose is similar to cellulose but they can support our immune system, boost detoxification processes, help balance blood sugar and lower cholesterol. They are found in nearly all types of foods, including processed foods such as xantham gum and guar gum, as well as pectin, aloe vera juice, mushrooms and grains.
Fiber is only found in plant foods (fruits, vegetables and whole grains) as plants need fiber for structural support and animals have bones and muscles.
Fiber are broken down into soluble and insoluble fiber. Both of them are needed for optimum health. Soluble fibers, such as fruits, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils and oats bran absorb water and provide satiety which help to maintain a healthy weight, while insoluble fibers, such as vegetables and whole grains, do not absorb water and help prevent constipation.
They have many health benefits such as maintaining a healthy weight, helping to regulate bowel movement, helping to lower LDL “bad” cholesterol, and reducing risks of diabetes and heart diseases. Low-fiber diets are associated with constipation, gastrointestinal disorders, diverticulosis, and colon cancer. Fiber may also reduce the risk of appendicitis.
It’s important to know that when you increase your amount of fibers, it’s best to go slowly as it may take some time for your digestive system to adjust. It’s also important to drink plenty of water since the body needs water to make the fibers easier to eliminate.
Overall, we should not be stick about the amount of carbohydrates in our diet. There is definitely room and benefits from variation. We should however emphasis on the quality of our carbohydrates and stick to the ones that are whole, unrefined, and high in fiber. And lastly, we should be careful with the quantity of grains we are eating and leaning more towards roots and leafy vegetables.