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Carbohydrates - What Are Their Differences?

Carbohydrates, also known as saccharides, are one of three macronutrients obtained from food or drinks, and is the primary source of energy used in the body in the form of sugar, starch, and fiber. Protein and fat being other key macronutrients, carbohydrates provide half or more total calorie intake in a typical diet. For reference, 1 gram carbohydrate equivalates to 4 Calories, still less than dietary fat. A carbohydrate molecular structure is constructed from carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms, and function in the body as metabolic intermediates in cells, tissues, organs, and energy storage. (1)

Due to their structural diverse ability, they are categorized into two categories, simple carbohydrates, and complex carbohydrates. Simple Carbohydrates include monosaccharides and disaccharides, while complex carbohydrates include oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. The difference is determined by the number of sugar (saccharide) molecules each carbohydrate contain. However, polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates) are often what most humans consume, and make up about 60% of the diet. Disaccharides (simple carbohydrates) contain sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar), and maltose, making up 30% of the diet. The remaining 10% of carbohydrates is in the form of dietary fiber, important for intestinal mobility and digestion.

Simple carbohydrates carry 1-2 short-chain sugar molecules. These are digested within the body rapidly, providing short-term energy, high spikes in blood sugar levels and often leave individuals feeling hungry faster, shortly after consuming these meals. Foods within this category, most often include unhealthy foods such as sodas, pastries, white bread and highly processed or refined foods. (2) Too many simple carbohydrates in the diet, can lead to poor health, contribute to weight-gain, and often promote diabetes or heart diseases. (2)

Complex carbohydrates contain 3 or more long-chain sugar molecules and take longer for the body to digest these long sugar molecules, which allows individuals to develop satiety, the feeling of feeling full, for longer periods after consuming these meals. Foods of this category include whole grain foods, such as whole grain bread, pasta and cereals, fruits, vegetables, beans, and unprocessed or minimal processed foods.

It is important to incorporate complex carbohydrates with meals, as it aids to promote a healthy diet. The reason is that, these foods often contain loads of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. (2) All needed to maintain a healthy diet. So the next time you think about cutting carbohydrates from your diet, considering lowering consumptions of simple carbohydrate foods that provide less energy needs to the body. Overall, carbohydrates are essential nutrients that help fuel the body, and all forms of carbohydrates can be part of a healthy diet in moderation and with balanced meals.

Listed below are 3 key healthy benefits of adding carbohydrates into your diet!

3 Key Healthy Benefits of Carbohydrates in The Diet:

  1. Supplies Energy: Carbohydrates support energy needs. Healthy and moderate consumptions of carbohydrates can help to maintain low blood sugar levels with use that include all food group sources, grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and dairy products.

  2. CNS & RBC Support: Carbohydrates fuels the central nervous system (CNS) and red blood cells. The breakdown of carbohydrates into glucose promotes insulin. Insulin hormones help transport glucose from the blood stream to cells of the body that require glucose to support brain health and CNS functions.

  3. Muscle Support: Converted carbohydrates stored in skeletal muscle cells as glycogen, provide stored energy to help power through physical activities, strength exercises, and can help to increase muscle size. (Measurements of carbohydrates depend on intensity, endurance level, and duration of workouts.) (3)

Bibliography/ References:

  1. Gropper SS, Smith JL, Carr TP. Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. 8th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning; 2022.

  2. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The nutrition source carbohydrates . Web site. . Accessed February, 2024

  3. Academy of Nutrition of Dietetics. Fitness flicks: Am I getting enough carbohydrates. Web site. Accessed February, 2024.


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