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Barley Fields

Carbohydrates:

In a nutshell:

  • are the major source of energy in the body.

  • should be included in every meal. 

  • if eaten in their natural form have many health benefits.

  • but if eaten in the processed form have many health hazards.

Fruit Sandwiches

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy in our body. In fact almost all other food is converted to glucose, the simplest carbohydrate, before cells can use it for generating energy. But at the same time unhealthy carbohydrates lead to numerous deleterious health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Here we will explain the healthy sources of natural carbohydrates. By the end of this page, you will have a solid foundation on how to differentiate the good carbs from the bad ones and how to incorporate them in your diet in a healthy and delicious way. 

 

 

STRUCTURE: 

Each carbohydrate is made of many carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules attached to each other. In nature carbohydrates are found in simple and complex forms:

 

Simple Carbohydrates are made of one to few individual carbohydrate units attached to each other. The most common simple carbohydrate molecules we eat in our food are

  1. Glucose

  2. Fructose 

  3. Galactose

  4. Lactose

  5. Fructose

Complex carbohydrates are made of many simple carbohydrates attached to each other and hence are much larger in sizeThe most important dietary complex carbohydrates are

  1. Sucrose 

  2. Cellulose

  3. Fiber

DIGESTION:

The digestive system can only absorb carbohydrates in their individual molecular structure. Therefore, carbohydrates in our diet are digested down to their individual simple forms by our digestive proteins and the normal bacteria that reside in our bowels. Most of this occurs in the stomach and early parts of the small intestine.

 

Simple carbohydrates are easy to digest, they are absorbed rather fast in the stomach and early intestine, leading to a rapid rise in our blood sugar. Hence they provide a rapid surge in energy that only lasts a short time. This is the reason for the "sugar high" we get from eating processed foods like candies. 

 

Complex carbohydrates are larger molecules. It takes the digestive system longer to break them down, hence they are absorbed at a slower rate, providing us with a longer source of energy as they become available over time. A potato, which is made of complex carbohydrates, does not give us a "sugar high" but it does keep us full for a longer period. 

 

One of the important dietary differences between carbohydrates lies in this absorption rate:

 

 

                                               

 

 

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The rapidly absorbed simple carbohydrates lead to wild swings in blood sugar level, overwhelming our body's ability to appropriately digest and utilize it. Over time the excess sugar leads to various deleterious health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease.   

In contrast complex carbohydrates do not cause these rapid swings, rather they lead to a slow and steady absorption of dietary carbohydrates which our body can use efficiently as an energy source.  

The difference in absorption rate is also important in satiety. Simple carbs are absorbed quickly, so you feel hungry shortly after; complex carbs are absorbed much slower so you feel full for a longer period. Hence, with complex carbs you tend to eat less. 

Fibers:

These are complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Humans lack the digestive proteins needed to break down fibers, therefore, we are unable to absorb dietary fiber. This turns out to have tremendous health benefits as the undigested fiber helps to clean our digestive system of many unhealthy dietary food byproducts. In fact, fiber has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. This is also why fiber helps with bowel movements as it makes our stool soft. 

Sources of dietary carbohydrates:

Natural carbohydrates are found in fruits, some vegetables, legumes, dairy and grain. In their natural form, all carbohydrates are either complex or a combination of a small amount of simple surrounded by more complex carbohydrates, fats and proteins. This means that natural carbohydrates are slow to digest and healthy.

However, due to their complexity, they are harder to use as a cooking ingredient, have a shorter shelf life, and do not have the addictive sweet taste of pure simple sugars. So over the years, the food industry has come up with ways of transforming natural carbohydrates into more processed, sweet and simple sugars. And as consumers, we have grown used to the sweet and addictive taste of simple sugars. 

Therefore, a great way to choose healthy carbohydrates is by using fresh, unprocessed ingredients. So let's go over each source and talk about how to incorporate it in your diet.

GRAINS:  

1.  Grains are one of the major sources of nutrition globally.  

They are cheap, easy to grow, and easy to make. In its

unprocessed form, grain is made of three parts:

  1. Bran: complex carbohydrates (fiber)

  2. Endosperm: simple carbohydrates, protein and minerals 

  3. Germ layer: vitamins, healthy fats

In the unprocessed form, whole grain is made of simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and protein. It has all the macro and some micronutrients in a healthy natural form: a true healthy superfood that should be in your diet. 

 

This is where you have heard the buzz word “whole” and “brown”.  Whole refers to grain used in its unprocessed form and is usually found in breads, pasta, pizza dough, and rice. When it is in its whole form, grain has a darker color. Whole grain is also sometimes referred to as brown such as brown rice.  (If you have ever used whole flour, rice or pasta, you may have already noticed that it is harder in texture and takes longer to cook). 

Here is the list of the healthy whole grains you can include in your diet. Always read the nutrition label to make sure it is truly made of whole grain (whole wheat) and does not have other simple carbohydrates added. 

  1. Steel cut or Rolled Oats (avoid instant or flavored oats)

  2. Quinoa

  3. Farrow

  4. Barley

  5. Mullet

  6. Whole wheat pasta

  7. Brown rice

  8. Whole wheat bread (always read the nutrition label for details as many commercial breads have added sugar or non-whole grains)

  9. Any pastry made with healthy grain (whole wheat flour, Oat flour)

 

Quinoa, farrow and barley are easily cooked by a 1:2 ratio of grain to water (or broth) and usually can be prepared in less than 30 minutes. In addition they can be stored in the fridge up to a week and easily reheated. They are a great addition to salads or can be a substitute for your white rice, pasta, or bread. These superfoods are packed with healthy carbohydrates and protein. For cooking instructions and some recipe samples, please visit our recipe page. 

FRUITS:

Fruits are made of water, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The carbohydrate in fruit is made of both the high index simple sugars and complex carbohydrates (fiber). If eaten as a whole fruit, it is quite healthy since it has a higher portion of fiber than simple sugars. There is really no unhealthy fruit. Eat what you like but in its natural unprocessed form. Two to three servings per day is all you need to reap the benefits without gaining too many calories. Juicing, however, is another perfect  example of making a healthy, delicious food into an extremely  unhealthy food. By  juicing you separate all the fibers from the rest of the fruit, and what you  collect in your glass is only the water, vitamins  and high index carbohydrates. The thick healthy fibers are left behind and discarded (Have you ever noticed all that extra stuff when you juice an orange? Yep, those are all the healthy fibers you just threw away or ate separately). Juicing, regardless of what the bottle says, separates the healthy and unhealthy portions and what you end up drinking is a bottle of water with a lot of simple, unhealthy carbohydrates. And be aware of advertisements such as 100% fruit, no additives and the like. No matter how natural the product, it is still a juice, and a very expensive way of eating fruit! 

various type of fruit slices stacked wit
Fresh Veggies

VEGETABLES:

Some vegetables are loaded with healthy complex carbohydrates.

They can be a great substitute for grains in your meals. They also

add a tremendous amount of flavor and aroma to your food.

Vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. They should

be apart of every meal and can also be a great choice for

snacking. 

LEGUMES:

Legumes are plants of the species fabaceae. Legumes are probably the healthiest, most nutritionally packed foods you can include in your diet. They are made of simple and complex carbohydrates with a high concentration of fiber, some starch, and a high concentration of protein and minerals. There are really no unhealthy legumes. Some common legumes for food consumption are all kinds of

  • beans

  • soybeans

  • peanuts

  • peas

  • chickpeas

  • alfalfa 

  • clover

  • lentils

You can either buy them raw and make them yourself or get them already made in canned forms (one of the few healthy forms of canned food). Just be sure to look at the food labels and stay away from products that have added sugar. Legumes are a great alternative to meat as a source of protein. They are also significantly less expensive than meat. So, they are good for your health and your wallet. 

DAIRY: 

Milk is full of lactose, a simple carbohydrate. But because milk is also rich in healthy fats, protein and vitamins, it is a healthy source of carbohydrates (the simple carbs are absorbed slowly thanks to the complexity of other macronutrients in milk). Other dairy products such as yogurt, cheese and butter do not have any significant amount of carbohydrates, as the carbs are lost during the fermentation process from milk. Be sure to avoid all those flavored dairy products displayed so commonly in the grocery stores because they are fully loaded with artificial sugar and are very unhealthy. You can always blend in your own fruits if you like your dairy products flavored. 

Oatmeal

Healthy Carbs in Breakfast:

  • Rolled oats

  • Quinua 

  • Fruit

  • Whole wheat waffles or pancakes

  • Whole wheat bread

  • Milk

Medical Application:

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Carbohydrates are measured in blood as glucose, the simplest form that circulates in blood. There are two ways to measure your blood glucose:

  • A single measurement from one sample: this gives a snap shot of your blood glucose level. It can vary depending on what you had eaten and when. Normal glucose levels are:

                         

1) less than 200 if you had just eaten

2) less than 140 if last meal was 2 hours before

 

3) less than 100 with 8 hours fasting 

  • A more accurate way of measuring your blood glucose is a test called the HbA1c (hemoglobin A1C). This is a number that corresponds to your average daily blood glucose over the past 3 months. Hemoglobin, your red blood cell, circulates in blood for 3 months before it is taken out of the circulation and destroyed. Depending on how much glucose is in your blood, the hemoglobin particles have a different amount of glucose attached to them. Since Hemoglobin circulates for 3 months, by looking at the percentage of glucose attached to hemoglobin, we can estimate the daily average blood glucose. So whether you fast for 24 hours or just had a  a gallon of ice cream before your blood draw (let's hope not), the HbA1c level will not change. Clinically we use this level to diagnose diabetes and monitor your response to treatment over time. And remember, it takes 3 months for any changes in your diet or medication to significantly alter your A1C, so there is no need to check it sooner. 

The next time you see your primary care doctor be sure to inquire about your A1C levels.

 

Normal: less than 5.7

Pre-diabetic: 5.7-6.4 

Diabetic: 6.5 & above

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