What Exactly are Carbs Anyway?

NutritionLabelCarbs2We hear a lot about carbs in the diet/weight loss/health world. We often hear people say they’re avoiding carbs to lose weight. You can go on a low carb diet or a “no carb” diet or even a carb addicts’ diet. As usual when it comes to diets there is a lot of conflicting information.

I’ve been reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists now for a long time. I knew to look at how many grams of carbs a food contains per serving and how much of that is sugar and how much is fiber. I know that if a relatively high number of the carbohydrate grams are sugar that’s probably not a food that’s good for me or my waistline. I know that if there are at least a few grams of fiber, that’s a good thing.

However, if you look closely you might notice the total number of sugar and fiber grams do not add up to the total number of grams of carbohydrate in the food. So, what are the rest of the carbs made of?

This is exactly the question that came up in a recent discussion I had with one of my clients. It’s an obvious question and I hated to admit I didn’t have the answer. After doing some research I was surprised to learn that typically the rest of the carbohydrate grams are made up of complex carbohydrates known as starch.

Why was this such a surprise? Because I’ve always heard that starch is bad for you. I grew up being told that you shouldn’t eat too many starchy foods. However, it turns out that, just like with most everything we eat, what matters is how processed it is. Less processed starchy foods tend to have a lot of good-for-you things that accompany the starch like fiber, vitamins and minerals.

So, what does it mean for a carb to be complex or simple? This terminology comes from the size of the carbohydrate molecules. Simple carbohydrate molecules are, well, simple. They’re made up of one or two sugar molecules. Whereas complex carbohydrate molecules are made of chains of simple carbohydrate molecules, sometimes thousands, strung together.

Finally, which foods contain carbs? Mainly they come from plant sources… vegetables, fruits and grains. Table sugar, syrups and honey are all forms of simple carbohydrates. Dairy and nuts also contain some carbohydrates. Almost any processed food will have carbohydrates as most will contain some type of grain (usually wheat)  or some kind of sweetener (like high fructose corn syrup or sugar), or both.

Now that you know what carbohydrates are the next question is… what happens in the body when we consume them? Stay tuned for my next post to find out.



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