Carbs: All You Need To Know
Carbohydrates form the triumvirate of macronutrients together with proteins and fats but it is a food group that comes in for criticism and scapegoating as it is blamed for almost everything from weight gain to allergies.
They still remain an important part of most individuals’ playing the role of energy-giving foods. This article takes a comprehensive look at carbohydrates including their composition, functions, sources, distribution in the body and some guidance on their use.
Composition Of Saccharides
A more scientific name for carbohydrates is saccharides and this is the origin for them being referred to as sugars. Carbs are essentially made up of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms in various configurations. Energy-giving foods are usually divided into four broad groups that are mono-, di-, oligo- and poly-, with the first two regarded as simple sugars and are digested very quickly in the body.
Oligo- and poly-, on the other hand, are digested much slower and are known as complex carbs. Refined carbohydrates such as sugar and glucose digest even quicker and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels.
Functions of Carboydrates and Health
Carbohydrates are the main and preferred source of energy for most cells and vital organs like the brain, kidneys, liver and muscles depend on calories from carbs to carry out their functions. Carbohydrates have digestive functions from the mouth to the colon as they start being broken down by enzymes in the saliva before moving to the stomach and small intestine where they are absorbed.
Carbohydrates in the form of fiber move further to the large intestine where they keep helpful bacteria alive and assist in bowel movement. The liver is the engine for carbohydrates as it distributes glucose to cells and organs and turns excess into fat. The major organs utilize carbs as follows;
- Brain: the brain uses about 120 grams of carbohydrates for energy daily and does not burn any other compound for its energy needs.
- Liver: the liver prefers to use carbs for its numerous functions including processing and breaking down just about any compound that gets into the body.
- Kidney: kidneys need the energy to filter waste from the body and reabsorb useful compounds into the bloodstream.
- Muscles: Muscle tissue stores glycogen, a form of carbohydrate for fight and flight scenarios but will burn fatty acids and ketones when necessary.
- Fat cells: excess carbs are stored in adipose tissue which can be converted back to saccharides as required.
Sources Of Energy-Giving Foods
The main sources of carbohydrates are grains and starchy vegetables including maize, wheat, millet, oats, rice, barley, potatoes, peas and corn. Dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese also contain some carbs as do like legumes and pulses like beans and lentils. Fruits are another source of carbs while vegetables contain very small amounts but are packed in fiber.
Advice on Carbohydrates and Health
Experts and dieticians agree on the importance of carbohydrates in the diet but there is little consensus on the appropriate amount. Low-carb and high-carb diets are ill-advised and individuals should vary their intake depending on fitness and weight goals and conditions such as diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome.