Carbohydrate Basics

If you have been following me for some time, you know that generally, I am a fan of a lower carbohydrate dietary approach. This stems from my specialty and years of working in diabetes and metabolism. It might surprise you to learn that I don’t believe that everyone needs to follow a strictly low carbohydrate diet. It all depends on your health status and your goals. That being said, no matter what your dietary needs are, a proper understanding of the macronutrients can help you get a handle on determining the best dietary approach for you. What are macronutrients you ask? Macronutrients are the basic nutritional components. They are carbohydrate, protein, and fat. This is what some people refer to as “macros.”

This week, we are discussing the first component: carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates include starches (also called complex carbohydrates) sugars (also called simple carbohydrates) and fiber. On a nutrition label, the listed “total carbohydrate” is the sum of all 3 of these types of carbohydrate.

Complex carbohydrate, or starch, is found in foods like potatoes, beans, and grains. Once eaten, starch is broken down into sugar. While it takes a bit longer for the body to digest it compared to simple sugar, which is already in sugar form, it eventually breaks down into sugar so the body can use it to make energy. How quickly a complex carbohydrate can be broken down and turned to sugar depends a lot on if it is processed or not.

Processed carbohydrates are carbohydrates where the fiber (and often nutritious) part has been removed, leaving just the starch. This in a sense, makes it easier for your body to convert it to sugar as most of the work or processing is already done. This is why eating a piece of bread made from processed wheat flour (white flour) will raise blood sugar much higher and faster than eating whole grain quinoa.

Simple carbohydrate, or sugar is found in our diets in two forms; natural sugar and added sugar. Natural sugars are those naturally occurring in foods such as fruit. Added sugars are those added to foods to make them sweeter, such as the sugar added to many flavored yogurts. There are many different names for sugar which can make it difficult to always identify when it has been added to foods. Common names include table sugar, molasses, honey, turbinado, corn syrup, rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup, beet sugar and many more! Some food labels use the chemical names for sugars. They can be identified as they end in “-ose.” For example, the sugar in fruit is called fructose, the sugar in milk is lactose. Table sugar is sucrose. If you see a chemical name that ends in “-ose” you are dealing with a form of sugar.

Fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods and is found in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. Most dietary fiber passes through the intestines and is not digested but it helps to keep things moving and helps us feel full and satisfied. This makes foods high in fiber, like many vegetables, a great addition for weight loss/weight maintenance. Fiber also serves to feed the microbes in our intestine to keep our gut microbiome healthy. Since fiber is not digested, it does not convert to sugar or raise blood sugar. Because of this fact, many people subtract fiber from the total carbohydrate count when they are tracking. We call this the “net carbohydrate” count. For example, a cup of broccoli has 6 grams of total carbohydrate, but 2 grams of those 6 are fiber. Thus, a cup of broccoli has only 4 grams of “net carbohydrate” or blood sugar impactful carbs. A well formulated nutrition plan will include lots of high fiber, low sugar produce as these foods are low in blood sugar impactful carbohydrates but high in essential nutrients. I support counting net carbohydrates when it comes to whole foods like our example here, however when it comes to processed foods, especially in the low carbohydrate diet space, not only is fiber subtracted, but also things like non-nutritive sweeteners as well. The issue with this is that not all sweeteners are created equal, and some can have blood sugar effects (for a deeper dive on this, see my blog post “How Sweet It Is”) Also, added fibers may not always have the same effects as naturally existing whole food fiber. It’s not to say these foods cannot be enjoyed at times and can have their place in helping keep your nutrition plan sustainable, however a good general rule is to focus on whole foods whenever possible.

Let me know if this overview of carbohydrates was helpful and send me your questions!


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