What are carbs?
Carbohydrates or carbs are molecules consisting of the elements carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are a lot of different carbs and the first thing we are going to learn in this article is how we can differentiate and classify these molecules. Again, here is your little dose of chemistry, but don’t be scared. We are just going through the basics and this will help you to understand how carbs work in your body and what they do.
The basic components of every carb are simple sugars, also called monosaccharides. These are small molecules with 3-6 carbon atoms. In nature they often form a ring, sometimes the ring is open and we find a chain. The next picture shows you the example of glucose, the most important simple sugar for our body. A lot of chemical reactions in our metabolism are based on this molecule.
In the picture you see the open chain on the left side and how it closes into a ring on the right side. There is a range of simple sugars, where glucose is just one of them. They are for example fructose, which can be found in fruits, or galactose which can be found in dairy products. They all look quite similar having a chain or a ring with 3-6 carbon atoms.
If you like Lego, you will love simple sugars! They are the perfect Lego bricks. They can be stuck together and build chains and 3-dimensional nets with up to thousands of units. By splitting of water molecules (H2O) they can link at their edges and build these huge structures. These structures are called polysaccharides. Poly is “Greek” for “many” and Saccharides meaning sugars as already explained.
In nature, we can find for example starch which is a structure of thousands of glucose units linked together. Plants use these structures to store their energy, comparable to human fat cells.
Sometimes these structures can be very solid and can have structural or safety-functions. Chitin for example is the main component of the exoskeleton of many insects or cellulose is found in the structure of many plants and wood.
So now that we know how carbs look like we can ask ourselves what are they good for, or what is their function in our bodies?
When we talk about carbs we are always talking about carbohydrates that can be processed by our body. So basically we are talking simple sugars, smaller polysaccharides, and starch. Cellulose, chitin, or similar structural polysaccharides are not carbs in a dietary meaning as we cannot consume them for energy. They go in … they come out. No calories, if you know what I mean.
The most important function of the typical dietary carbs is fuel! They are the perfect source of fast energy. Our metabolism can easily burn them and this gives us energy for our day. They are easier to metabolize compared to fat or protein, so they are our body’s preferred source of fuel.
The problem with carbs
Over the last years, several low carb diets like the Atkins diet or keto diet got very popular. Sometimes carbs are almost demonized and shown as the root cause Nr 1 for weight gain.
I think that this is not fair. Carbs were here thousands of years ago when obesity was not even in a dictionary … Mostly because there did not exist any dictionaries. What I want to say is taht carbs are not the root cause for obesity. Obesity, as a social problem developed somewhere in the industrial revolution. However, already our ancestors in ancient Rome had a diet with a lot of their calories from carbs (grains, legume, etc.) Carbs are not bad. It is how we use them!
Carbs are fast energy. Especially simple sugars can be processed super-fast by our bodies. They are like kerosene for our metabolism. Our body can get kind of addicted to this fast energy and this is the problem. If you eat a meal with a lot of added sugar, (like many processed foods) you will know this feeling that you are hungry again, already 2-3 hours after your meal. Your body gets a sugar flash from these meals and your blood sugar level increases sharply. After a short amount of time, your body has used the fast energy and you experience a sharp drop in blood sugar. This is the time when your body craves more sugar. Many people tend to have a snack or another meal in this situation and they end up with calorie excess and weight gain.
Processed foods are the perfect source of added simple sugar. Sources can be any kind of syrup, sweeteners, fruit juice concentrate, honey, or molasses. These food additives are used a lot by the food industry to improve the taste of processed food. We love sweet, because sweet means easy and fast energy. Our body knows that, and he is a lazy bastard. Our body simply loves fast energy.
So, the problem is in fact the consumption of simple sugar and not the consumption of carbs. Added sugar does not only boost weight gain and obesity, it can also increase the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
How many carbs should you consume?
Now here comes the question everybody has been waiting for! How many carbs should you consume? There is no simple answer to this question. Let’s start with the status quo.
With our typical western pattern diet we consume ca. 55% of our calories from carbs. 20% of our daily calorie consumption comes from added sugar, mainly from sweetened beverages like soft drinks.
The WHO (world health organization) recommends cutting your calorie consumption from added sugars to a maximum of 10%. You should simply avoid these kinds of foods.
The recommendations for calorie consumption from carbs vary a lot! While WHO recommends 55-75% the institute of medicine recommends 45-65%.
If you are on a keto diet or an Atkins diet you will only consume ca. 5% of your total energy from carbs. This works very well for some people, and there is nothing wrong with per se. Many people have great results with these diets and if you choose your dishes wisely you can have a very healthy lifestyle with these. Carbs are not essential for your body. You can take your energy also from fatty acids or protein, so it works to cut your carbs almost completely… It is more the question if this is necessary. In our opinion, it is not, because you need to follow a very strict plan and exclude a lot of healthy dishes, while you can also have great weight loss results with higher consumption of carbs. Finally, it is your decision on what diet works best for you. If it is easy for you to cut carbs and you like keto, the go for it! You can always give it a try.
So summarized, there is no simple answer to how many carbs you should consume. It is how and when you consume your carbs that matters a lot, and this brings us to the next point.
Good carbs & bad carbs
This is the most important chapter of this article. I want you to read this part very carefully because it contains some very important information for your diet.
When it comes to carbs it is all about quality!
I already pointed out, that you should absolutely avoid added sugar or simple sugar in your diet. It gives you these sugar flashes that trigger unnecessary snacking, weight gain, and even diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the long run. Cut this stuff. Avoid it completely.
Switch to healthier polysaccharides from “whole carbs” instead. A natural polysaccharide like starch cannot be metabolized immediately by your body. Your body needs to break down the chains first, which takes time. Your blood sugar level and your energy will not experience this sharp up and down like with added sugar. It is more a soft increase in energy that keeps for a longer time. No craving for sugar, no blood sugar roller coaster. The next picture gives you a graphical explanation of this difference.
There is nothing bad about the consumption of “good carbs” from natural polysaccharides. I want you to think about this point. You do not need to cut carbs completely as long as you stay with healthy carbs! Moreover, these kinds of foods contain healthy vitamins and minerals, whereas added sugar contains only “empty calories” without any beneficial nutrients.
I want to give you a list of foods that contain good carbs and another list that contain foods with bad carbs. You can use these lists to search for healthy food and make a good choice of source for your carbohydrates.
Foods with good carbs:
- Whole grain products
- Potatoes, sweet potatoes
- Lentils, kidney beans, peas
- Whole fruits like bananas, strawberries, apples
- Seeds like Chia seeds or pumpkin seeds
Foods with bad carbs:
- Sweetened drinks
- Syrups and concentrated fruit juices
- White bread
- Pastries, cookies, cakes
- Sweet snacks like chocolate, candies, ice cream, etc.
- French fries and potato chips
The bottom line
Carbs can give your body fast energy and are not bad per se. You should avoid processed food with added sugar as this kind of carbs get your metabolism out of balance and increase the risk of weight gain and even diseases. Differentiate between bad carbs and good carbs and switch your carbs consumption to healthy sources like whole grains, potatoes, seeds, and whole fruits, etc.
The total amount of carbs that you consume is not as essential for your body weight as the quality or source of carbs. You need to find a level that suits your lifestyle and diet.
You can try a low carb diet and see if this works for you. However, keep in mind that it is not necessary to cut carbs completely if you want to lose weight. Finally, it is your total calorie consumption that counts.
Search for good carbs and avoid added sugar and processed food!