Everything You Need to Know about Carbohydrates
If you want to eat a healthy, balanced diet, it’s important to provide your body with the three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Remember that carbs are our body’s most important energy suppliers: they support brain function and also our muscles and organs. In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about this macronutrient.
Table of contents:
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (along with protein and fat). The unit structure of carbohydrates are called saccarides. Here we distinguish between simple sugars or monosaccharides (e.g. glucose and fructose), disaccarides (e.g. lactose and sucrose), and polysaccarides (starch or cellulose). These provide your body with energy.
How do carbohydrates affect your body?
Carbohydrates play a critical role in covering your body’s energy needs. They are the most important fuel for your muscles and brain. One gram of the macronutrient has four calories, the same as protein. Fat, on the other hand, has nine calories per gram – more than twice as much.(1)
When you eat carbohydrates, no matter whether it’s whole grain bread, pasta, or chocolate, they are turned into glucose in your body. Your blood carries this glucose to your cells where it is either turned into energy or stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. The hormone insulin controls the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. If your glycogen stores are full, the excess carbohydrates are turned into fat.
Carbs don’t make you fat. If you’re asking yourself, “are carbs good for you”, remember that healthy people need the appropriate amount of high quality carbohydrates to be full and have enough energy. Steer clear of low carb diets; instead, follow a balanced diet and eat intuitively.
How many carbohydrates should I eat?
How many carbs you should eat per day depends on many factors:
- Activity level
- Fitness goals
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that you meet approximately 50% of your daily energy needs with carbohydrates.(2) Include plenty of high fiber foods and reduce your intake of refined sugar (less than 10% of your total calorie intake). Ideally, 50 to 65% of your calories should come from carbohydrates. Studies have shown that both high and low carbohydrate consumption are associated with an increased mortality risk.(3) As usual, a balanced diet is recommended.
You don’t need to weigh your carbs to stay fit and healthy. Just make sure to include carbohydrates and fiber in every meal. If you combine this with healthy fats and protein, it will keep you full and your blood sugar stable for longer.
A healthy plate of food should include:
- ¼ carbohydrates
- ¼ protein
- ½ vegetables
Which foods are high in carbohydrates?
Many foods contain carbohydrates:
- Vegetables (e.g. potatoes, corn, peas, carrots, etc.)
- Milk and dairy products
- Bread and whole grain products
- Table sugar
- Sweetened beverages (e.g. sports drinks, iced tea, juices, etc.).
Types of carbohydrates: simple vs. complex
When we talk about carbohydrates, we distinguish between two kinds: complex and simple carbohydrates. They each affect our body in different ways.
- Simple carbohydrates
…are in processed sugar, white flour and products containing it, sweets, fruit juices, sports drinks, etc. Unlike complex carbohydrates, simple carbs are immediately absorbed into the blood and provide energy quickly.
- Complex carbohydrates
…have a lot of benefits for the body. They are absorbed into your bloodstream slower than simple carbs. This means that your blood sugar level rises gradually. What happens? You feel full longer and have fewer cravings. Complex carbohydrates can be found in whole-grain products, rice, corn, millet, potatoes, fruit, lentils, beans, peas, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. They all contain B vitamins, folic acid, magnesium, calcium, iron, protein, as well as fiber. The benefit of fiber is that it is not digested, which keeps you feeling full longer.(4)
Do athletes need carbohydrates?
If you do a lot of sports and want to perform well, it’s particularly important to pay attention to targeted carb consumption. However, the amount depends on your personal fitness goal. Do you want to know exactly how many carbs you need as an athlete? This carb calculator will help you find out how many carbs you should eat:
Don’t forget to eat enough protein, too. If you have a high-protein meal without carbohydrates, the body may only be able to use 10% of the protein, because there is no insulin available (produced by the body as soon as you eat carbs). That’s why both protein and carbs are important components of a balanced diet for athletes.(5)
You should eat a small snack that contains carbohydrates andprotein about 15 to 30 minutes before you work out and drink some water.
- Before working out, eat Greek yogurt with berries, whole-grain bread and an egg, a banana with some peanut butter, or a granola bar. Many of these foods contain magnesium and B vitamins, which boost your energy for the workout.
- After the workout you should also consume a mix of protein and carbs (whey protein and fruit, chicken and brown rice, eggs and toast). The rule of thumb is a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. However, this can vary depending on your fitness goals.
What to eat before, during and after your workout
We have the best overview of workout nutrition for you. Find out how nutrition varies for cardio and strength training.
The macronutrient carbohydrate – wrap up
Are carbs good for you? The answer is: YES! Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet, especially for athletes. How much you should eat depends on different factors. Include a source of carbohydrate in every meal and think about the types of carbohydrates you’re eating. Opt for complex carbs over simple. This will ensure that your body gets enough energy. You will also have enough fiber in your diet to keep you blood sugar stable, keep you feeling full, and support healthy digestion.