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 with reservation based on skewed articles in the media supporting X diet over another, magazines sharing no-carb diets, ketogenic this or that. But, have you ever wondered how this important macronutrient plays an essential role in your everyday health, along with a few ways to incorporate a healthy mix of whole-food carbohydrates into your diet?
featured image via mode damour
image by 101 cookbooks
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 a sugar (think sucrose, glucose, lactose, etc.). On the other hand, polysaccharides are carbohydrates containing fibers.
image via click to enlarge
What Do Carbohydrates Do?
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, and in varying amounts and ratios. Your body can make energy through healthy fats and proteins through various processes and it doesn’t technically need the to consume carbohydrates to survive. However, carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy that our bodies can use.
The Case for 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 a healthy digestion.
Start here to find whole food sources of carbohydrates:
- Fruits like raspberries, apples, and bananas
- Vegetables; my favorites include leafy greens, broccoli, artichoke hearts Starchy Vegetables: sweet potatoes
- Nuts and seeds. Stock up on pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds
- Legumes. Think black beans and lentils
- Whole Grains like oatmeal, and quinoa and millet both pseudo-grains (actually a seed)
image by drizzle and dip
Simple Carbohydrates v. Complex Carbohydrates
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, in order to drive glucose (a.k.a. sugar) into your cells (such as 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 fill their food products with.
image from Camille’s Honey Roasted Carrots
On the other hand, oligosaccharide and polysaccharide digest slowly (think of them as higher 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 have fiber and starch as components too. Since they often pack more nutrients, they’re considered to be more beneficial for your health too.
image by self magazine
Moral Of The Story
Recognize that carbs aren’t the “enemy” though you will be better equipped to succeed with your health goals if you limit the simple and refined carbohydrates that are too prevalent in our eating culture: cookies, candy, cakes, bread, crackers and anything that has hidden sugars in it like salad dressings, marinades, and sauces. 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 choose complex carbohydrates and carbohydrates that are found in vegetables and fruits.
image by eva kolenko
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.