Carbohydrates 101

Low carb, high carb, good carb, bad carb, no carb?  How much stuff out there do we hear about carbohydrates?  It makes me CRAZY to hear people talk about all their carbohydrate avoiding tactics.  The absolute bottom line to weight loss – take in less calories than your body needs.  It’s simple.  Portion control and exercise.  I’m not necessarily saying it’s simple to do but the concept itself is simple.   So let’s talk carbs.

Carbohydrates are one of  three necessary macronutrients (needed by the body in large amounts)  that provide calories  (the other two are protein and fat).   Carbohydrates and protein provide 4 calories per gram while fat provides 9 calories per gram (two times as much!).  Carbohydrates’ main purpose is to fuel the body.  Protein and fat have other primary purposes, but in certain instances can be utilized as energy as well.  Carbohydrates are the best and sometimes only sources of many essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins A, C and E, the majority of B vitamins, phytochemicals (providing antioxidants and other disease preventing benefits), potassium, and the majority of trace minerals.

There are simple and complex carbs, as determined by their chemical structure.   Most people know complex carbohydrates are the healthiest to consume.  Why?  Let’s talk about what happens when you eat simple carbohydrates.  Simple sugars are digested in the body much more quickly than complex carbs.  A surge of insulin is released rapidly to help remove  sugar from the blood.   When your body senses blood sugar getting low, it causes you to feel hungry, craving more sugar.    Hence, the “sugar craving cycle” occurs.  Most simple sugars are nutrient barren.  Fruit and milk are simple carbs that provide a variety of vitamins and minerals.  The “bad” simple sugars include cakes, cookies, candy, soda, etc.   Now on to complex carbohydrates.  As mentioned above they are loaded with nutrients.  Digestion of complex carbs takes place much more slowly eliminating  radical swings in blood sugar and providing a slow, steady source of energy.  They also cause a greater feeling of satiety, reducing the risk of overeating.   Complex carbohydrates  include nonstarchy vegetables (such as broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach),  beans and legumes, whole grain cereals/breads, potatoes, barley, and whole-wheat pasta.  Carbohydrates should comprise 40% to 60% of your total caloric intake.

Listed below are important points to remember:

  • Carbohydrates provide 4 calories/gram – half as many as fat.
  • They provide many essential nutrients, including fiber.
  • Opt for complex carbs as they are slowly released into the bloodstream, thus allowing you to feel full longer.
  • Avoid simple sugars as these will cause you to feel sluggish and hungry again more quickly.
  • There are so many different types of foods that contain carbohydrates, the possibilities are endless!  Who doesn’t like carbohydrates?
  • When to eat more carbs?  Prior to an athletic event to fuel your body.
  • When to eat less carbs?  Possibly following a period of  poor eating or overindulgence.  Increase protein intake in lieu of carbs.

When reading labels AVOID the following terms/words which basically mean “sugar”:  high fructose corn syrup (actually any type of syrup), sweetener, any words ending in -ose (dextrose, glucose, maltose, etc.), honey, fruit juice concentrate. dextrin, maltodextrin, and molasses.

This was a brief overview of carbs.  In a future blog,  I hope to provide some delicious, complex carb containing  kid friendly recipes.   If your kids want to learn more about carbohydrates and other nutrients, have them go to

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to eat….


2 responses

  1. Excellent article, Jamie. As a middle school teacher, I’ll be looking forward to reading your posts. I’ll also forward it to our school nurse and PE/Health teachers.

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