What Are Carbohydrates? Are They Really the Enemy? A Dietitian Explains

It’s time to take the guesswork out of healthy eating.

By McKel Hill

Editor’s note: McKel Hill, MS, RDN, LDN is a Dietitian and Founder of Nutrition Stripped.

Over the years, I’ve found that a lot of my clients and readers of Nutrition Stripped are cautious of eating carbohydrates. Their reservations are based on skewed articles in the media supporting one diet over another, the proliferation of no-carb diets, such as keto. So what is a carbohydrate?

A lot of you may equate carbohydrates with bread and pasta. You’re right in that thought, but you can also find them in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy products, and many sweet desserts. A carbohydrate is a molecule that is made up of multiple atoms of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, and known as a saccharide. You may have heard of one or a few of the four kinds of carbohydrates: mono-, di-, oligo-, and polysaccharides. If you took Latin, you’ll recognize that mono- and disaccharides are the “smaller” variations of the four types of carbs. These are mostly referred to as sugar (think sucrose, glucose, lactose, etc.) On the other hand, polysaccharides are carbohydrates containing fibers.

If you have ever wondered how this important macronutrient plays an essential role in your everyday health, then you’re in the right place. I’m going to give you the full scoop on all things carbs, and a few ways to incorporate a healthy mix of whole-food carbohydrates into your diet.

Camille Styles spinach ricotta homemade pizza recipe baked in oven on pizza stone

What do carbohydrates do for our bodies?

Carbohydrates, along with fats and proteins, are macronutrients that our bodies use as energy. Our brains, muscle tissue, and cells all use carbohydrates in different ways, in varying amounts, and ratios.

Your body can make energy through healthy fats and proteins through various processes and it doesn’t technically need to consume carbohydrates to survive. However, carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy that our bodies can use.

Fall appetizer buffet, cheese board- backyard game night with target
What are good carbs?

Complex carbohydrates play an important part in a balanced, healthy diet.

They provide you with sustained energy that won’t fall flat to an afternoon crash, they fuel your post-work workout class, they work to balance your blood sugars, and they provide fiber to support healthy digestion.

What foods have carbs?

Start here to find whole food sources of carbohydrates:


Simple Carbohydrates vs. Complex Carbohydrates

So what are refined carbs? You can take it a step further and think about these four types of carbohydrates as “simple” and “complex.” In a nutshell, monosaccharides and disaccharides are also known to be refined, and they’re found in processed foods like cookies, candy, and soda.

However, they can also be found in many fruits, coconut water, and honey. These types of carbohydrates are digested very quickly, and they can be specifically used to elicit an insulin response, which is an increase in your body’s response to the sugar that you’ve eaten. It drives glucose (a.k.a. sugar) into your cells (like muscle cells) for energy or stored for the future in fat cells. These hidden sugars are incredibly cheap to produce, which makes it easy for large companies to use them in their food products.

On the other hand, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides digest slowly–think of them as high fiber carbs. These types of carbohydrates are known to be “complex” and can include anything like carrots, apples, broccoli, whole wheat grains, and quinoa.

Complex carbohydrates go beyond simple sugars—they also have fiber and starch. Since they often pack more nutrients, they’re considered to be more beneficial for your health too.

Pesto Pasta Primavera - easy healthy summer one-pot pasta recipe

Moral of the carb story

Once you recognize that carbs aren’t the enemy, you will be better equipped to succeed with your health goals.

And while I won’t say that one carbohydrate is “worse” than the other, the majority of us who strive to live a healthy lifestyle want to prioritize complex carbohydrates and carbohydrates that are found in vegetables and fruits.

Additional Resources

I’ve always found that having new, fresh recipe inspiration and reading informed advice is the perfect nudge in the right direction to stay inspired and motivated by healthy eating. The Guide to Master Meal Planning offers a year’s worth of recipes, meal planning tips, and resources to set you up for success with your goals. Let’s just say that it takes the guesswork out of healthy eating.