Do You Need Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients included in the human diet, alongside proteins and fats. They are organic compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, typically with a ratio of hydrogen to oxygen atoms similar to that in water (2:1). Carbohydrates serve as a source of energy for the body and are found in a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, dairy products, and sugary foods.

Depending on who you ask, carbohydrates can be described in very different ways. For some, they form an essential part of a well-rounded diet, whilst for others, they’re considered detrimental for nearly everything from your waistline to your heart.

In fact, carbohydrates are an important part of a well-formulated diet and can be found in a variety of foods considered to be healthy by many, including vegetables and fruits. Understanding the different types of carbohydrates and choosing to eat those that provide the most nutrients, can ensure that you take advantage of all the health benefits that carbohydrates have to offer.

Types of Carbohydrates

A carbohydrate is made up of sugar molecules that are broken down by the body into glucose which is then used for energy. There are two types of carbohydrate, and all carbohydrate foods fall within these major categories: 

Simple carbohydrates are a simple version of a sugar molecule, with only one or two parts. Table sugar is an example.

Complex carbohydrates have a structure of three or more parts, and take more energy and time to be broken down into glucose.

The 3 most common classifications of carbohydrates are:

Sugars which are made up of monosaccharides, including glucose, fructose and galactose. Besides table sugar, other sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar and molasses all fall into this category.

Starches which are made up of longer chains of polysaccharides. Some common examples of starches include grains like brown rice, oats and quinoa, along with vegetables such as potatoes and butternut squash.

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not digested in the body. This passes through the gastrointestinal tract, adding bulk to the stool to promote regularity. Dietary fiber is found in several foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds.

While carbohydrates are not considered essential in the same way as proteins and fats (meaning your body can produce energy in their absence), they play several important roles in the body:

Source of Energy: Carbohydrates are one of 2 fuel types used by the body for energy, with the other being fat. Glucose, the simplest form of carbohydrate, serves as fuel for the brain, central nervous system, and muscles during high-intensity exercise.

Glycogen Storage: Excess glucose from carbohydrates is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Glycogen serves as a readily accessible energy reserve that can be quickly mobilized when needed, such as during physical activity or fasting.

Brain Function: While the brain can adapt to using ketones for fuel during periods of carbohydrate restriction (as seen in ketogenic diets), some research suggests that certain cognitive functions may be influenced by the availability of glucose.

Muscle Recovery and Growth: Carbohydrates are important for muscle recovery and growth, especially after intense exercise. Consuming carbohydrates post-exercise helps replenish glycogen stores and promotes muscle protein synthesis, facilitating muscle repair and growth. 

Dietary Fiber: Many carbohydrate-containing foods are rich sources of dietary fiber, a type of indigestible carbohydrate. Fiber plays a critical role in digestive health by promoting regular bowel movements, preventing constipation, and supporting gut health. Additionally, fiber helps regulate blood sugar levels, reduces cholesterol absorption, and promotes feelings of fullness and satiety, which can aid in weight management and appetite control.

Nutrient Density: Carbohydrate-rich foods such as local and seasonal vegetables and fruits are often rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Including a variety of these foods in your diet provides important nutrients that support overall health, including immune function, bone health, and cardiovascular health

Balancing Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are often categorized as “good” or “bad.” 

When you hear the term good carbs, it refers to whole food carbs that have vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols (protective plant substances). Many good carbs also provide fiber. These are important distinctions because these carbs tend to be digested more slowly — whether because they also have protein (in the case of dairy like yogurt, for example), or because they have fiber (like that found in foods like sweet potatoes). This slower conversion to glucose means your body has a steadier stream of energy, and it doesn’t cause as many drastic fluctuations in blood sugar that can be problematic. Taken together, the protective compounds and healthier blood sugar response is what makes these foods good carbs.

Typically, foods that have excessive sugar and refined grains are considered bad carbohydrates because they supply few, if any, nutrients (including fiber), and their fast conversion to energy prompts unhealthy fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Over time, this can tax your system and lead to health problems.

This means that some carbohydrates are healthier than others

Good carbohydrates contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that protect your cells from damage caused by aging, invaders or the environment. The fiber in good carbs helps feed the trillions of bacteria in your gut, creating a diverse ecosystem that strengthens your immune system and protects you from certain diseases. In addition to defending your body against diseases, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption can also improve your mood. 

The science is clear: Whole food carbs offer health benefits, whereas refined and processed carbs have a negative impact on both your weight and your health. Read on here for more on whole food carbohydrates

Daily Carbohydrate Consumption

Personal carbohydrate needs vary widely depending on the person, lifestyle factors and activity levels, and health goals. Determining the amount of carbohydrates your body tolerates is important. It is generally suggested to consume between 0 and 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound each day.

Since portions are typically smaller than people think (a serving is considered to be 1 cup of starchy vegetable or ½ cup of whole grains or legumes) it can be common to have be challenged with eating the right amount of starch in a meal. When plating a meal, it’s important to make your non-starchy vegetable portion larger than your starch component. This is an easy way to think of it so you there is less need to count, measure, weigh or track anything!

Lowering Carbohydrate Consumption

Most people want to choose healthy foods for themselves and their families, and it helps to know how carbohydrates work. It's important to note that individual carbohydrate needs and tolerance can vary based on factors such as activity level, metabolic health, and personal preferences. Experimenting with different carbohydrate levels and observing how your body responds can help you find an approach that works best for you. 

To implement a lower-carbohydrate approach, consider the following strategies:

Focus Real Foods: Choose nutrient-dense, whole food sources of carbohydrates such as non-starchy vegetables, leafy greens, berries, nuts and seeds. These foods provide essential nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants while minimizing added sugars and refined carbohydrates. Read more on real food here

Limit Refined Carbohydrates and Sugars: Avoid or minimize foods and beverages high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, such as sugary snacks, sweets, sugary drinks, white bread, pastries, and processed foods. These foods can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels and contribute to cravings and overeating. Learn about the issues with too much sugar in the diet in this post

Moderate Fruit Intake: While fruits contain natural sugars, they also provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Choose lower-sugar options such as berries, citrus fruits, and apples, and enjoy them in moderation as part of a balanced diet (1-2 servings per day).

Include Protein and Healthy Fats: To promote satiety and balance macronutrient intake, include adequate protein and healthy fats in your meals. Good sources of protein include humanely raised meats, poultry, fish and eggs, while healthy fats can be found in naturally occurring animal fats, avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish.

Monitor Portion Sizes: Pay attention to portion sizes, especially of carbohydrate-rich foods. While whole foods like non-starchy vegetables can be consumed in larger quantities, be mindful of serving sizes for higher-carb options like starchy vegetables.

If transitioning to a lower-carbohydrate diet, consider gradually reducing carbohydrate intake over time to allow your body to adjust and minimize potential side effects such as fatigue or cravings. To learn more about low carbohydrate and ketogenic diets, read this post and this post

At Pete’s Real Food we strive to include the best quality, tastiest good carbs in each meal we create. We also offer a full menu of keto options for those watching their carbohydrate intake. 

Explore your options and order from this week’s menu here >>>>>

You'll know that you're getting delicious meals packed with all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals to support all aspects of your health.

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