Carbohydrates – A Primer

By Megrette Fletcher M.Ed., RD, CDE

Carbohydrates have been in the news. Taking a deeper look at this macronutrient can be confusing because carbohydrates have been labeled as either “good” or “bad.” Unfortunately, this quick judgment of carbohydrates can get in the way of eating a more balanced diet. When you make a snap decision, you are likely not seeing that each choice is really two choices: the item selected and the amount. This is why the “good” or “bad” approach to evaluating a food is too simplistic and inaccurate.

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It is true that some carbohydrates enter into your bloodstream faster. These rapid-acting carbohydrates are monosaccharides or disaccharides. As the prefix indicates, monosaccharides are a single sugar molecule. Glucose, fructose and galactose are examples of monosaccharides. Glucose and fructose are found in fruits and vegetables; galactose is the sugar in milk. Disaccharides are two monosaccharides joined together. The three most common are sucrose, lactose and maltose. Sucrose is table sugar. Lactose is the sugar found in milk, and maltose is two glucose molecules joined together. Regardless of where a food comes from, it will end up as glucose when digested. This is the final form of all carbohydrates. The body can easily digest monosaccharides and disaccharides because it has to break one or two bonds before they are broken down into glucose. Once a food is broken down into glucose, it can leave the intestinal tract and enter the bloodstream.

Summary: Carbohydrates that provide quick energy are short chains of glucose that can enter the bloodstream rapidly.

Many people crave carbohydrates. Understanding why you crave some foods is a complex process. However, think back to when we talked about hunger, where you learned that hunger is triggered a decrease in blood glucose levels. The craving of carbohydrates is your body’s way of trying to increase your blood glucose level.  Wanting something fast or sweet is a common desire if your energy level is dropping. Your body is responding to a normal situation, and your craving for something sweet isn’t wrong. In fact, it is another reason to question the “bad” or “wrong” labeling of carbohydrates.

Choosing carbohydrates, like 4 ounces of juice, a piece of fruit, a glass of milk or a few crackers, is often enough to take the edge off the craving. This small nudge to eat is a healthy signal. If this is ignored, then your hunger will likely increase, moving from a comfortable pang to an uncomfortable feeling of hunger. When hunger becomes unpleasant, it is hard to select a reasonable amount of food. Willpower and hunger have an inverse relationship. This means when you have a lot of willpower, you are not hungry. When you have no willpower, you are very hungry! Most parents already have discovered that restraint and moderation go out the window if you are very hungry. This is why pausing and checking in with your hunger is an essential aspect of mindful eating.

If your body is slightly hungry and a meal is more than two hours away, choosing a more complex carbohydrate can offer a more sustainable source of energy. It makes sense because starches are oligo or polysaccharides. These complex carbohydrates are long chains of glucose. There are many bonds for the body to break, resulting in a slower release of glucose.

Complex carbohydrates taste less sweet and often contain fiber. Complex carbohydrates include all grains, such as rice, pasta, bread, whole grain crackers and carbohydrate-rich vegetables such as white and sweet potatoes, winter squash, peas, corn and dried beans and peas.

You remember that all carbohydrates are broken down into glucose to enter the bloodstream. Carbohydrates from fruit, low-fat or skim milk, and sugar will enter the bloodstream more rapidly because they are mono or disaccharides. Whole grains, like rice, bread, pasta and crackers, are oligo or polysaccharides, which are long chains of glucose. There are many bonds for the body to break, resulting in a slower release of glucose that can provide a more sustained energy. One reason you might choose more whole grains over a simpler form of carbohydrate is to provide the body with a constant energy supply. 

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