Alrighty! Let’s talk about carbs.
Carbs, or carbohydrate is one of the main energy sources we feed on. No wonder, since carbohydrate builds so much organic mass and is a highly available potential food source globally (and unlike animals, plants won’t run away).
In this article we will learn about what carbs actually are, how they work and how we make use of them, what “good carbs” and “bad carbs” are and finally what carbs we should preferably eat.
Its all in your greens
You won’t find much of carbs in animal products. If there’s any, then only in traces. Carbohydrate is a product of photosynthesis, where plants transform the sunlight’s energy into some solid and energy rich molecule. This molecule marks the entry point of life as we know it. Even if you look at bacteria you find one type that does photosynthesis and one that is dependent on the produced energy supply.
The smallest type of this molecule is called a monosaccharide, but better known under the term sugar. There are several types of those sugars, but they all have their basic structure in common, which allows them to be combined into longer and more complex structures, the so-called polysaccharides.
The shorter and less complex types of carbs are dissoluble in water and quickly digestible. The more complex a carb is, the harder it tends to be broken down. Many structures become so complex and strong that we cannot digest them. In nutrition, you know them under the term fiber. Even though we cannot break down fiber, it is still meaningful in your digestion, as it feeds microbiomes and carries out toxic substances and moves forward the dung in your guts.
It is recommended to cover less than 10% of your total calories from sugar to sustain a healthy lifestyle. You should furthermore aim below 5% calories provided from sugar to enjoy more health benefits.
How we feed on carbs
The type of carb we make use of is a short sugar molecule called glucose. If we encounter this one during digestion, we can directly absorb it and make use of it. If we encounter more complex ones, our body needs to invest both time and energy to break down the big lump into small usable sugars. This process already starts in your mouth. If you chew a piece of bread for a couple of seconds, your saliva will start breaking down the carbs and you will soon feel a sweet taste on your tongue.
One gram of carbs supplies 4 kcal of energy. You can consider that as a “gross” value, since our body also needs to actively break more complex carbs down in order to use them in the form of sugars.
During the journey through your digestive system everything will be broken down into sugars and finally picked up in your small intestine. It then will be released into your bloodstream by the liver.
When sugar enters your blood, your pancreas will release the hormone insulin, which allows the sugar to traverse cell walls and reach its final destination for energy production. Excess glucose can be transformed into fat and stored in your muffin tops.
Blood sugar levels
Sugar is a crucial energy source for our brain. We constantly have it in our blood stream and its levels are critical for our health. A too low blood sugar can lead to lowered brain functionality, seizures and shock. If your body cannot handle too high blood sugar levels, it will drive the excess glucose out through urine. Along with the sugar you lose a high amount of water. This can lead to dehydration and over acidification. Under normal conditions however, you are able to release enough insulin to make use of the glucose without kicking it out again.
The body tries to keep the blood sugar in a good range. We need the glucose levels in our blood to make sure we have enough energy accessible. Too high levels will be actively regulated down by the release of more insulin into your blood. When dropping low, our brain will signal us hunger. With the consumption of foods our blood sugar levels then raise again.
Why there are good carbs and bad carbs
So by now we understand the basic mechanisms behind the intake of carbs and the level of blood sugar: The less complex a carb is, the faster it will get absorbed into the blood. And the faster the concentration of sugar rises, the sooner it will get regulated down with the use of insulin. All extra that we cannot put into fast storage will not be thrown out, but saved in triglycerides.
There is no “smartness” behind this rule, like throttling the absorption when the availability of carbs is high. Whatever is available, will end up in your blood instantly. Therefore, choosing the right type of carbs can keep you full over a longer period of time and prevents binge eating and frequent hunger attacks. Carbs, that go slow on you therefore are considered “good” carbs, while sugars, that quickly let spike and fall your blood sugar levels, are the bad boy.
When carbs gradually enter the blood stream, you can benefit from two positive effects: Your blood sugar raise is less steep and keeps you full longer. Like this, your body does not need to release high amounts of insulin to prevent entering critical sugar levels. The slow absorption of more complex carbs allows you stay full for a longer time, even though the intake of the overall calories stays the same.
Bad carbs on the other hand enter quickly and make your body react fast. Your current need will be covered, but anything that goes on top of that still needs to go get regulated down to prevent unhealthy sugar levels. Not only will you store the extra, but you will also enter low sugar levels fast. This signals more hunger in no time and you have the urge to eat again.
When following this fast paced rhythm, you easily pile up more calories than you need. You should instead chose carbs that keep you running through the day. Slow and complex carbs therefore are what you want. You not only will be full for longer, but high amounts of fibre also will help to move out unwanted substances from your body.
The science way of rating carbs
Luckily, science got us covered. There are two key indicators on how to rate carbs. First we want to see how fast they get absorbed into our blood stream, and second, we should know how dense our food is packed with carbs.
The speed of absorption is represented by the glycaemic index. What sounds complicated is actually a pretty simple measure: Let’s say you eat some food worth 50g of carbs and measure how high your blood sugar levels raise within the next 2 hours. The result gets put into relation to the blood sugar levels from an intake of 50g of pure sugar.
A glycaemic index score of 100 means that your blood sugar raises as fast as if you ate pure glucose. The lower the number, the slower the absorption, thus the longer you will feed on the carbs.
If you love numbers and want to get exact answers, there is many public databases on the web covering both whole and processed foods. The public searchable database from the University of Sydney for example is easily accessible and kept up to date.
The second side of the medal is the glycaemic load. In non-nerd speak this means how many digestible carbs are available in a fixed amount of food. The higher the load, the more dense in carbs the food is.
Again, if you are a fan of doing maths, you can easily calculate the load. All you do is take the glycaemic index and multiply it with the available calories from carbs per unit.
When looking at the curves above, the glycaemic index describes how steep the curve raises. When measuring the whole area under each graph, you are looking at the glycaemic load. While both curves can draw an area of the same size, the index describes how well it gets distributed over time. A less steep curve finally allows you to make use of your carbs for a longer period.
Good Carbs and bad Carbs in food
I guess you are not into checking numbers before each meal. Luckily, that’s not even necessary. You can easily pick the right type of carbs if you take a look into your plate.
Most of the available carbs you can pick from, serve as a building block for our plants, that provides the necessary stability to grow high. Short sugars don’t fulfil that purpose, especially since they are soluble in water and don’t need much effort to be broken down to glucose or similar. Only where their initial purpose is serving energy, as in seeds or fruit, you will find higher amounts of short carbs.
In natural food, those “high” amounts of short carbs are still no problem. It only turns ugly, when food gets refined and processed. Take white flour as an example: the plain powder that is used in white bread has not much to do with wheat in its original form. While a grain contains a shell, skin layers and a core, flour only consists of the core, broken down into tiny bits. The type of carbs you find here are mainly starch, which gets broken down to sugar in no time.
The same food can differ dramatically in terms of absorption. This table shows the glycaemic properties of wheat and wheat products. You can easily see how the degree of processing correlates with a raise of the glycaemic index.
|Food||Glycaemic index||Glycaemic load|
|white bread, wheat flour||72||11|
|turkish bread, whole wheat||49||8|
|bulgur (a part of wheat)||46||12|
|whole wheat kernels||30||11|
You get roughly the same amount of calories by eating each of those. However, white bread gets you hungry again at more than double the speed of whole wheat kernels.
But what about fruit?
Yes, yes! Fruit is sweet. That’s true in most cases. I understand that your first reaction is to avoid fruit for their high levels of sweetness. The sugar of juice indeed can be absorbed directly. Still, I tell you that fruit is good for you!
Let’s look at one extreme example to make it clear: Watermelon! In terms of the glycaemic index, Watermelon competes with highly processed foods. Considering that watermelon mainly holds water, you can guess that the glycaemic load is super low on the other hand.
So despite its sweet taste, the watermelon won’t bring you much energy after all. To compensate a meal of 500 kcal with just watermelon, you would need to eat about 1.6 kilos of watermelon – that’s just not realistic.
The quintessence is about the same for any type of fruit. There are of course variations in sweetness and calorie density, but overall fruits won’t wreck your diet. To kick yourself out of balance with just fruit, you need tons of them.
Make smart choices instead of cutting carbs
To get the best out of your carbs, you should make sure that they keep you full for a long time. This can easily be archived by eating fresh whole foods instead of going for processed junk food on a regular basis. When you manage to stay full for a longer time, you automatically will grieve for more food less frequently.
You can start this by making small changes in your shopping list – you don’t need to make cuts to get more out of your carbs: Instead of buying plain white bread, go for the whole grain version. Not only will you be full for longer, but whole components bring you more micro nutrients and fibre as well. The same applies for pasta, rice and cereals.
Also try to pick the whole food version of things like muesli, granola and co. Those things don’t need to be coated in sugar to be tasty. You can add back sweet easily by chopping some fresh fruit
I suggest you to inspect one item on your shopping list at a time. Changing over your whole habits at once tends to be extreme and can leave you unhappy and unsatisfied. Instead, do it bit by bit.
Look at your inventory and replace one item with a healthier option. If you are comfortable with your choice, then keep it and move on to the next thing. Like this, you will steadily improve your supply, without hopping from one extreme to the other.
Why processed foods are the assholes in our food chain
The basic rule for a healthy diet applies as well to carbs. Eat with variety, eat whole foods and keep things balanced. Too often the items offered in supermarket shelves break each single rule.
A lot of industrial food does not focus on healthy benefits. In the end, shelf life, an addictive taste and a competitive price are the main drivers for most of the decision-making. The optimal food from a marketing perspective is food that sells fast, is cheap to produce and hooks the customer. Nutritional value is a plus that then gets printed as a highlight on the package.
No wonder – if texture, fat and sugar can drive the sales, it’s clear to follow that pathway to keep your shareholders happy. And since the majority of shoppers is price-sensitive, you need to do cuts in quality to win the pitch in the shelf.
You see where we are after several decades of industrial food production. When shopping we enter a jungle of choices, presented in colourful boxes. Many of them claim this and that nutrient as a highlight and often try to trick you into thinking this is a healthy product. Making the right choice is hard, if you don’t look at the nutrients directly.
The best way out of that jungle again is not to rely on processed foods that much. I don’t ask to cut everything that gets sold in a package. Many good foods are still packed, like pasta or rice. You should be more careful on packaged food that still needs to maintain “freshness” for a while, like baked items such as pre packed bread or crispy cookies. And even if you stay in that range, you often still got choice and can look for a whole-grain low sugar version of the same damn thing.
What you can learn about your carbs from the nutrients section on the product
When you are new to the nutrition topic and want to start learning about foods, you likely don’t know which products you might want to pick, yet. A look at the ingredients and nutrients can help in this situation a lot.
Generally, fresh and whole should be preferred. But when it comes to processed foods, it is worth taking a deeper look at the ingredients. No matter what product you look at, you can easily spot bad carbs and sugars, even in products where you would not expect them. Here it is important to know, that most countries require the manufacturer to list them according to their predominance, ordered by their amount used.
If the first couple of ingredients on the list contain keywords like sugar, fructose, glucose, starch or flour, expect them to be high in fast carbs. This is common for many baked items. It’s worth to have a look at the nutrition table then. The overall carbs excluding fibre can be interpreted as the glycaemic load. The higher their proportion in a 100g serving, the more carbs you can expect.
Next, have a look at the sugars and compare them to the amount of total carbs. The more of the total carbs is made by sugars, the shittier the carbs.
Just by following this as a simple rule, you can make your match easily. In baked goods you can expect high carbs and low sugars, preferably made from whole grain. In things like soups, sauces or dressing, high carbs are an indicator for added sugars, which you then want to avoid. You even might find them in meaty products.
In the end…
If you start analysing your food and keep a look on the nutrients, you will soon learn which items to pick preferably and which might get banished from your fridge. Don’t focus on numbers and don’t be too picky with your choices. Sometimes letting the heart win is just the right thing to do.
Overall, understanding your carbs is not that hard if you apply some common sense and follow the basic rules. If it’s fresh and natural, it’s good! Have many of these on a regular base with a good variety and you are on a good path. An exception here and there won’t ruin anything, but make sure it stays the exception.
In a nutshell
Carbs are your main energy source, that are both highly available and fast in use. We get it mainly from plants. We can distinguish between short sugars like mono or disaccharide and more complex carbs and dietary fibre.
The less complex a carb is, the faster it can raise the blood sugar level. Longer carbs therefore can keep you full longer and prevent frequent hunger attacks.
To find “good carbs” you should rely on whole foods. Processed foods often contain high amount of “fast carbs” that get absorbed fast and leave you hungry again after a short while. If you mainly rely on fresh and whole foods, you don’t need to worry about your carbs.