What are carbs, simple and complex, and why do we need them

What are carbs? They are actually carbohydrates – one type (out of three) macronutrients (with the other two being fats and proteins) which are required daily in order for the body to function.

Carbs are divided into three main types – sugars, starches and fibers. Usually we call starches complex carbohydrates and they can be found in starchy vegetables, legumes and grain. On the other hand, simple carbohydrates are the sugars. We can further divide them into natural sugars – which we can find in fruits, vegetables, honey and mild – or added sugars – in processed foods, drinks, sweets and syrups.

Carbs are the main source of energy to the body. They help fuel the kidneys, heart, brain, muscles and CNS (central nervous system). Fibers can be beneficial for the digestive system – they promote regularity and make you feel full – and also normalize the levels of cholesterol in
the blood. The extra carbohydrates are stored in the liver and muscles and are used in times when you don’t consume enough carbs with your diet. If you don’t consume enough carbs this may lead to fatigue, headaches, constipation, nausea, troubles concentrating, bad breath and different deficiencies of various vitamins and minerals.

Simple carbs

Also called simple sugars, those are found in many different foods – milk, vegetables, fruits. They give the food a sweet taste. Simple sugars are known for quickly raising the levels of glucose in the blood.

They can be further divided into monosaccharides (single sugars) – like glucose, galactose and fructose – and disaccharides (two sugars bonded together) – like lactose (which is found in the milk and milk products), maltose and sucrose (the table sugar).

There are plenty processed foods which contain a different amount of added sugars.

Simple carbs provide only energy but no nutrition. This is why they are often called ‘empty calories’ – and you should try to avoid them, especially if you are trying to lose weight.

Simple carbs are absorbed by your organism much more quickly than the complex carb.

Complex carbs

The complex carbohydrates are also known as polysaccharides – made of multiple sugar units.
They are starches which have been formed by long saccharide chains. This then means that the digestion of the complex carbs takes longer time. They are comprised of at least three (usually more) sugars which are linked together. Those carbs are found in peas, peanuts, corn, potatoes, beans, lentils, whole-grain breads and also cereals. While simple carbs lead to a spike in the level of blood sugar, complex carbs allow for a steady supply of energy and a stably maintained blood sugar level.

The recommendations are to choose primarily complex carbs for your diet regimen.

Additional information

Once you consume carbohydrates, they are broken down into smaller elements known as, like we said before, sugars. Those smaller units are then absorbed in the small intestine and from there the sugars get into the blood. With the bloodstream they travel to the liver where they are
converted into glucose. The glucose together with insulin travels through your bloodstream to all parts of your body in order to provide energy for the cells to keep functioning properly.

If there is an excess of glucose it will be stored in the liver. Up to 2,000 calories of glucose can be stored as glycogen in the liver and the skeletal muscles. When there isn’t more place for glycogen but there is still an excess of glucose, it will be stored in the form of fat. On the other hand, if you don’t consume enough carbs, your body’s primary source of fuel will be the protein.

But this leads to some problems because protein is necessary to make up the muscles. Also, if your body relies on protein for fuel this will place stress on your kidneys and painful byproducts of the protein break-down will be passed in the urine.

And we also mentioned that another type of carbs is the fiber. Fiber allows you to have healthy regular bowel movements and reduces the risk of some chronic diseases – such as diabetes and coronary heart disease. But fibers aren’t absorbed in the small intestine and don’t get
metabolized into glucose. Rather, they reach the large intestine and there they get converted into fatty acids, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. It’s recommended to take 10 g of fibers per 1,000 calories.

Good and bad carbs

We’ve all heard some people to refer to carbs as good and bad. Usually bad carbs are called those which have ‘empty calories’, aka the simple sugars. They typically don’t have nutritional value. Bad carbs are found in white bread, white rice, sodas, pastries, highly processed foods and
white-flour foods. On the other hand, good carbs have a high nutritional value and are contained in the fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans and whole grains.

To better distinguish the good from the bad carbs, here is the checklist which the Pritikin Longevity Center offers:

Bad carbs are:

  • High in calories
  • Full of refined sugars
  • High in refined grains
  • Low in many nutrients
  • Low in fiber
  • High in sodium
  • Sometimes high in saturated fat
  • Sometimes high in cholesterol and trans fats

Good carbs are:

  • Low or moderate in calories
  • High in nutrients
  • Devoid of refined sugars and refined grains
  • High in naturally occurring fiber
  • Low in sodium
  • Low in saturated fat
  • Very low in, or devoid of, cholesterol and trans fats

What’s the glycemic index?

Often when we talk about nutrition we hear about something called glycemic index. This is a measure of how quickly (and how much) the carbohydrates leads to a raise in the level of blood sugar. The high-glycemic foods lead to a quick and high spike of blood sugar levels while the low-glycemic foods raise your blood sugar less quickly and not as much.

The benefits of the carbs

Carbohydrates are important for the mental health. They are suspected to be involved in the serotonin production in human’s brain. They also may be helpful for your memory.

Carbs also help with weight loss, although people often think that they do the opposite. But if you consume good carbs which contain fiber and complex sugars, then you can actually lose weight.
The fibers are also really important for your body, as we stated above. They lower the cholesterol, improve the digestion, promote regular bowel movements and reduce the risk of certain illnesses.

What happens when you don’t get enough carbs?

If you don’t consume enough carbs with your diet, then your body doesn’t get its main source of energy. This leads to less production of glucose which affects your entire body but mostly the central nervous system which means that you may experience physical and mental weakness and dizziness. (Hypoglycemia is the medical term for low blood sugar – deficiency of glucose).

Also, as we said above, when deficient in carbs the body will use proteins as a source of energy.
This leads to loss of muscle mass and puts stress on your kidneys.
When your diet is low in carbs this may also mean that you aren’t getting enough fibers which may lead to constipation and other problems with the digestive system.

In conclusion

The consumption of carbohydrates is vital for your body. Still, you’d better eat foods with complex carbs – rather than such with simple carbs – in order to keep your body healthy and your weight in the normal range.


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