Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients, meaning they provide calories. They are one of my favorite macros to consume and are found in almost every food!
Facts about Carbohydrates
There are 3 main macronutrients (aka macros): carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Alcohol is potentially a 4th macro, because pure alcohol contains calories (let me know if you'd like a separate post on this down in the comments!). This post provides an overview of carbs to help you better understand what they are, what they do, and why we need them.
First, I'm going to explain what carbohydrates are and then break them into 2 categories. Next, I'm going to explain what fiber is and why it's good to consume daily. Then I am going to review common food sources of carbohydrate, and lastly, I will discuss daily carbohydrate recommendations.
What are carbohydrates?
First, what are carbohydrates? They are the body's preferred fuel source. This means when there are carbs around, our bodies want to use them for energy. These molecules are the easiest to convert into energy, over protein and fat. Our brains actually primarily run off of glucose, which is a form of carbohydrate!
Put simply, when consumed, carbohydrates are broken down into sugars: glucose, fructose, and galactose. These 3 forms cannot be broken down any further. We can either use these molecules immediately for energy or store them for later (as body fat!).
Simple versus Complex Carbohydrates
We can divide carbohydrates into 2 categories: simple and complex. Simple carbs are easily digested and higher GI (glycemic index). Candy, sweets, juice, desserts, crackers, table sugar, pretzels, sugary cereals, syrups, soda, etc. are examples of simple carbs. Consuming these foods by themselves (i.e. with no other food) will cause our blood sugar to spike rapidly and subsequently fall rapidly. This can lead to that "sugar rush" feeling followed by fatigue (or a "sugar crash").
On the flip side, we have complex carbohydrates. These carbs are harder to digest and are considered low GI foods because of their fiber content. Food sources of complex carbs include whole wheat products (breads, tortillas, pastas, cereals), brown rice, popcorn, sweet potatoes, oats, some vegetables, beans, etc. Unlike simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates slowly increase our blood sugar and give us a more "steady" energy as our bodies work to digest them.
What is fiber?
Fiber is an undigestible compound found in plant-based foods, and could honestly be a post on its own. Our bodies cannot digest and absorb it. There are many benefits to including fiber in our diet like promoting gut health, blood sugar regulation, bowel regularity, optimizing cholesterol levels, assisting in weight maintenance, and decreasing risk of diabetes and heart disease.
High fiber foods include whole wheat products (be sure to check ingredient labels for whole wheat flour as the first ingredient!), pears, beans, berries, broccoli, apples, oats, avocados, popcorn, dried fruit, and so on! Men should aim for 38g fiber/day while women should aim for 25g/day (see this resource for more info on fiber!).
Food sources of carbohydrates
The above chart breaks down the two types of carbohydrates listing out examples of each. Choosing complex carbohydrates most of the time is great; however, there can be a time and place for simple carbs! The perfect example is before a workout - you want to consume an easily digestible carbohydrate source in order to raise your blood glucose and prepare for the activity.
How many carbs do I need a day?
This can be a loaded question. While the US Department of Agriculture recommends 45-65% of your total calories come from carbohydrates, I recommend factoring in your activity levels, body composition, and weight goals. As your activity increases so will your carb needs (and vice versa). Everyone will have different needs so I recommend speaking with a registered dietitian (like me!) about a specific number!
Final Fact About Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the easiest macronutrient for our body to convert into energy. However, they get a bad reputation for increasing weight, blood sugar, etc., especially simple carbohydrates. Look at/think about the added sugar and fiber content to evaluate a carbohydrate. Make at least half of your grains whole and choose carbohydrates with lower added sugars and higher fiber content BUT if you really want that handful of Skittles, enjoy and savor every bite!
Want to learn about other macros?