Today the media is full of information about carbs, whether to eat them or not, but from everything that I read, I get the sense that most people don’t really understand what carbohydrates really are. Why are most things you think about carbs wrong?
Firstly, carbohydrates are the main and most important source of energy for our body, our brain alone consumes about 100 g of glucose per day to function properly, so having carbohydrates in our diet is fundamental.
So why then are so many doctors, dieticians and media talking about how bad carbohydrates are?
The answer is quite simple. There are many different types of carbohydrates and depending on which kind you use in your daily diet, that will define your health, your wellbeing, your weight etc.
- Carbohydrates are made up of carbon and hydrogen. The smaller molecules are known as monosaccharides, those are the ones our body can readily absorb and use without having to digest them, like glucose, for example. You will also know these are the simple sugars.
- Oligosaccharides are from 2 to 9 molecules of monosaccharides joined together. The most abundant are the disaccharides, like sucrose, for example. You might also know it as table sugar. Table sugar is made up of glucose and fructose, that are two monosaccharides. Lactose, that is a sugar produced by the mammary glands, is also a disaccharide made up of galactose and glucose.
- Polysaccharides are made up of more than 9 molecules of simple sugars and are joined in long chains, some of which are branched. These can be either digestible or non digestible polysaccharides. The digestible ones will take longer to be digested and will be absorbed more slowly into the blood steam as glucose, which will help keep your blood sugar more stable without tremendous peaks.
So what is the difference then?
You have most certainly heard doctors advising you to eat a lot of fiber, to keep your microbiome happy and to have regular bowel movements. And you know what? Surprise! Fiber is a polysaccharide!
So actually what doctors and dieticians are really trying to tell you is to stay away from simple sugars and most foods that only contain disaccharides. Those are ultra processed foods or anything that is basically white, like:
- White flour
- White bread
- White sugar
Not only grains, but also vegetables and legumes are full of carbohydrates, because they contain a lot of unsoluble and soluble fiber.
The soluble fiber is like pectin, for example, it’s actually used to make jams thicker. Pectin can help lower cholesterol.
Unsoluble fiber is cellulose, for example, it’s what the plant cell walls are made of. Our digestive system cannot digest these fibers, but the microorganisms in our gut can ferment some of them, producing many useful vitamins, and also making our bathroom breaks more healthy.
As I mentioned to you before, carbohydrates are the most important fuel our body uses on a daily basis, so we need to include them in our daily diet. The most researched diets, like the Mediterranean diet, advises to have 50% of carbohydrates of your daily food intake.
And how can you be sure you won’t eat too much of monosaccharides? Have a very varied diet based on fresh produce. A fruit that contains a high amount of fructose and glucose won’t impact your health badly as it also contains fibers, that will slow down your digestion and will slow down the glucose absorption into the blood stream.
If you eat a cake with the same amount of fructose and glucose as a fruit, you can be sure that the digestion of the two will be very different. If the cake has been made with refined sugar and refined flour, there won’t be any fiber to help slow down the digestion and absorption of the simple sugars, leading to a glucose peak in your blood stream.
Want some ideas on high fiber foods? Here are a few recipes for you: