We hear a lot about carbohydrates lately, and we get a lot of conflicting information.

  • high-carb diet
  • low-carb diet
  • paleo diet
  • Carbs fuel your body.
  • Carbs make you fat.

It can be confusing to say the least. In the endless discussions of good vs. bad, what’s never covered is the most basic point: what are carbohydrates, anyway? Here’s a crash course in the different types of carbohydrates, how your body processes them, and why you need them.

There’s more to carbs than you think

While you probably know that sugars and starches are carbohydrates, People often overlook two other forms of carbohydrates found on food labels: Fiber and sugar alcohol.

Carbohydrates are foods containing  chains of sugars, or saccharides. Monosaccharides are made up of only one molecule of sugar. Disaccharides are made up of two, and polysaccharides are made of many, many monosaccharides joined together to form long chains. The smaller sugars or monosaccharides are referred to as simple sugars.  The larger more complex sugars or disaccharides require more work by the body to break the chains in order to release the sugar and are referred to as complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates, simply explained

Simple carbohydrates are what we commonly think of as sugars—glucose, lactose, fructose; table sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, and so on. On the list of simple carbohydrates are baked goods  such as bread, cakes bagels etc When you eat them, your body requires very little energy to break them down into their component parts which are used by your body for fuel.

Complex carbohydrates need more processing

Complex carbohydrates are made up of many molecules of simple carbs linked together. Complex carbs come from plants like carrots, rice, and whole grains.  When you eat starchy vegetables, your body first breaks the complex carbohydrate down into simple carbohydrates, then converts the simple carbs to glucose.

Fiber is a carbohydrate too

You probably already know your body needs fiber for proper digestion. What you may not know is that fiber is also a complex carbohydrate. Unlike other carbohydrates, your body cannot completely break fiber down and use it for fuel; this is why eating high-fiber foods helps you feel full without a lot of added calories.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohol is an ingredient commonly seen in processed foods. Sugar alcohols are man made sweeteners produced from natural sugar. You will typically see sugar alcohols in low carb bars and shakes  Often times these products mislead the public by claiming to be sugar free.  Sugar alcohols are derived from sugars however their chemical processing makes them difficult to digest.  Your body is typically able to absorb half the sugar alcohol consumed while the rest passes through the digestive system and excreted in the stool.  When reading a label you should count half the grams as a simple sugar.  For example if the ingredients show 10 grams of sugar alcohol your body will absorb and digest 5 grams as a simple sugar.

In an attempt to reduce the amount of carbs on a daily basis, it is important to ask—what kind of carbs are we talking about? While sugars may be unhealthy and fattening, fiber and complex carbohydrates have a lower impact on weight gain.  In general a healthy source of carbs needs to be included as part of a well rounded diet. Read more for Part 2 continuation of this article.