You are here

Making Sense of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are created in the leaves of plants, where they are created out of water, carbon dioxide, and the radiant energy of sunlight.

Although your body can obtain all of the energy that it needs from dietary protein and fat, the most efficient source of fuel for your cells are carbohydrates.

We can classify all of the carbohydrates that we know of into three general categories:

  • Simple carbohydrates (sugars)
  • Complex carbohydrates (starches)
  • Plant fibers (pectin, cellulose, and hemicellulose)

Let's take a close look at each of these categories.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are also called sugars, and range in size from single sugar molecule to short chains of sugar molecules. Examples of simple carbohydrates include:

  1. Glucose
  2. Fructose (fruit sugar)
  3. Galactose
  4. Sugar cane
  5. Sugar beets
  6. Sorghum
  7. Molasses
  8. Maple sugar
  9. Table sugar
  10. Lactose (milk sugar)
  11. Maltose (malt sugar)

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are longer strings of sugar molecules and can be grouped into two general categories: digestible complex carbohydrates and indigestible complex carbohydrates.

Digestible complex carbohydrates (also known as starches) can be absorbed into your bloodstream. Although digestible complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules, they are not sweet like simple sugars are, and they do not dissolve in water. Digestible complex carbohydrates are absorbed into your bloodstream more gradually than simple sugars, and are therefore less likely to cause problems associated with blood sugar regulation. Vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and seeds are good examples of foods that are naturally rich in digestible complex carbohydrates.

Indigestible complex carbohydrates (also known as plant fibers) are components of plants that you cannot break down with your digestive juices and enzymes for absorption into your bloodstream. These fibers pass through your digestive tract undigested, but play an important role in protecting your digestive tract and overall health. Indigestible complex carbohydrates can be categorized into two main groups:

  1. Soluble fiber (dissolves in hot water) - includes gums, pectins, and mucilages.
  2. Insoluble fiber (does not dissolve in water) - includes cellulose and hemicellulose.

All whole plants contain varying proportions of soluble and insoluble fiber.

Soluble fibers can slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream. Soluble fibers can even prevent the absorption of fat into your bloodstream, which may be beneficial to your health if you regularly consume unhealthy fats.

Insoluble fibers help to add bulk to the matter that passes through your intestines, which promotes efficient elimination of waste products from your colon.

Ultimately, regular intake of fiber-rich plants can accomplish the following:

  1. Lower the level of unhealthy fats in your bloodstream.
  2. Allow for gradual release of sugars from the foods that you eat into your bloodstream, decreasing your risk of experiencing diabetes or reactive hypoglycemia.
  3. Promote regular elimination of waste products.
  4. Promote detoxification.
  5. Prevent the formation of endogenous toxins.
  6. Improve immunity.
  7. Decrease your risk of developing digestive tract disorders, including colon cancer.

What you need to know about carbohydrates and your health

Contrary to the tenets of many low-carb diets on the market, simple and complex carbohydrates can contribute to excellent short and long term health.

The key to eating carbohydrate-rich foods and staying healthy is to get your carbohydrates from whole, minimally processed foods.

Natural and unrefined grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits contain simple and complex carbohydrates (digestible) that are intertwined with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, protein, fat, and fiber, all of which allow your body to make optimal use of simple and complex carbohydrates.

Carbohydrate-rich foods that have been heavily processed and refined - like sugar and flour - have been stripped of much of their vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and healthy fat content. When your body is faced with the challenge of digesting these low-nutrient foods, it must gather up vitamins, minerals, and enzymes from its own stores to properly metabolize them. Over time, repeated ingestion of sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates can use up enough of your nutritional reserves to actually contribute to the accumulation of nutritional deficiencies, particularly in B vitamins.

Beyond contributing to nutritional deficiencies, regular consumption of refined carbohydrates can lead to steady exposure to large waves of insulin, the hormone that your body releases into your bloodstream to deal with influxes of sugar. Over time, exposure to large and unnecessary amounts of insulin can cause:

  1. Weight gain, since insulin promotes storage of fat.
  2. Lower cellular levels of magnesium, a mineral that is essential to keeping your blood vessels relaxed and your blood circulation efficient.
  3. An increase in sodium retention, which leads to excess water retention in your system, which causes high blood pressure.
  4. Increased amounts of inflammatory compounds in your blood, which can cause direct physical damage to your blood vessel walls and encourage the development of blood clots which can lead to heart attacks and respiratory failure.
  5. A reduction in HDL cholesterol, an increase in undesirable small molecules of LDL cholesterol, and an increase in triglycerides, all of which increase your risk for heart disease.
  6. Possibly a higher risk of developing different types of cancer due to insulin's ability to contribute to cell proliferation.

Another health challenge that may result from regular consumption of refined carbohydrates is the tendency to experience undesirable dips into low blood sugar territory, which often occurs with overreactive waves of insulin release. If this back and forth swing in blood sugar level - from a dangerously high level after eating refined carbohydrates to a dangerously low level after an overshoot of insulin - occurs repeatedly, the net result can be burnout of your blood sugar-regulating mechanisms. Symptoms of such a state include:

  • Intense cravings for sweets
  • Unexplained mood swings
  • Unexplained depression and/or anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Blackouts

Some or all of these symptoms are often clustered together to produce a label of reactive hypoglycemia.

Whenever your blood sugar level drops below an acceptable level, your adrenal glands are forced to produce and release hormones called glucocorticoids into your bloodstream. Glucocorticoids cause your muscles and liver to release their stores of sugar (called glycogen) into your blood, the goal being to restore a healthy blood sugar level. If your adrenal glands are repeatedly asked to respond in this fashion to reactive hypoglycemia, the result can be adrenal exhaustion and poor ability to raise blood sugar to an adequate level.

There are other endocrine issues that can result from regular consumption of refined carbohydrates, but the bottom line is this: If you eat sugar, flour, and other processed carbohydrates on a regular basis, you can expect to have serious health problems in the future if you don't already.

If you do not have a sedentary lifestyle and do not have an existing problem with blood sugar regulation or other components of your health, you should feel peace of mind about regularly eating simple and complex carbohydrates that naturally occur in vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. The only caveat to this recommendation is to soak uncooked legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds in water for at least a few hours before eating them or preparing them to eat - doing so will best support optimal digestion and your health.


Join more than 80,000 readers worldwide who receive Dr. Ben Kim's free newsletter

Receive simple suggestions to measurably improve your health and mobility, plus alerts on specials and giveaways at our catalogue

Please Rate This

Your rating: None Average: 4.8 (68 votes)
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.