The Magical Misunderstood Carbohydrate

The Magical Misunderstood Carbohydrate
Nutrition
Written By:
Marissa
Kleinsmith
MS
RD
LD

What are carbohydrates, what do they do, and why do we need them?

There is a lot of conflicting information online or in the media about carbohydrates. People will generally label carbohydrates as good vs bad or the healthy carbs vs unhealthy, but in truth, all carbohydrates can fit into any lifestyle. Carbohydrates are an essential part of a nutritious lifestyle!

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients, along with protein and fat.(1) Macronutrients are the larger components of food, while micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, make up smaller amounts. Carbohydrates are found in a variety of foods: bread, vegetables, cookies, pasta, chips, fruits, and so much more! 

What happens when I eat carbohydrates?

  • As soon as you eat carbohydrates, your mouth releases something called saliva that starts to digest the carbohydrate.(2) A fun test to see this digestion in action is to put a saltine cracker in your mouth and start to chew it. You will notice a sudden change to the flavor. 
  • That is the beginning of carbohydrate digestion!
  • After the mouth, the food travels down to the stomach where it is broken down to glucose.(2) In the intestine, our body begins to transport glucose to our organs and specific cells.(2)

Why do we need carbohydrates?

  • Carbohydrates are a source of energy that our bodies use. When looking at your intake for the day, carbohydrates should be making up 40-60% of your intake.(1)
  • Provides fiber! Fiber is an important nutrient that helps you to feel full longer, feeds your gut bacteria, and helps you poop.
  • Not just carbohydrates! Food contains so much more than just one component of nutrients. For example in a graham cracker, you may find carbohydrates, fiber, iron, vitamin B1 to vitamin B3, and this is all because of something called fortification. Fortification is the process where different vitamins and minerals are added into food. By fortifying foods and eating a variety, we do not need to keep track of our vitamins and minerals, unless medically necessary.

Myths

Carbohydrates make me gain weight.
  • There is so much more to your weight than the foods that you eat. Genetics, environment, past dieting history, age, sleep, your gut microbiota, and so much more. Everybody has a different body type that has been predetermined by the factors mentioned and your body fights to stay at an equilibrium, meaning it tries to keep you at your body weight. 
Carbohydrates turn into sugar.
  • In the media, carbohydrates have been demonized and we’ve been told that a carb is just a sugar - nothing more. There are different forms of carbohydrates that we eat. Some are simple carbohydrates, meaning they give us energy quickly, while others are more complex. Complex carbohydrates spend more time being digested and take longer to provide us with energy.(1) 

Tips 

  • Everyone has heard the saying “Eat the Rainbow,” so the purpose of this is to try and eat a variety of different fruits and vegetables. Eating a variety of foods allows for you to get in the micronutrients or vitamins and minerals without having to keep track.
  • Try to mix up the carbohydrates you eat and don’t be afraid of the already prepared or processed foods. 
  • Carbohydrates give us energy and eating carbohydrates with meals and snacks allow for energy throughout the day.

We understand that behavior change is hard and we want to be by your side during this process. If you’re ready to take that first step, please contact us at Nourish. One of our dietitians is here for you and ready to help.

References:

  1. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2010). Carbohydrates Basics 
  2. Food and Nutrition (2022). Carbohydrates 101 https://foodandnutrition.org/blogs/stone-soup/carbohydrates-101/