Carbohydrates are essential macronutrients that provide the most desirable form of energy for your body in the form of glucose. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, which enters your bloodstream and provides energy to your cells. Eating adequate amounts of carbohydrates every day ensures that your body has access to enough glucose to function properly.
Complex vs. Simple
All types of carbohydrates are made from sugar molecules, which are compounds that contain oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. Carbohydrates are separated into two major categories--simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates refer to those that contain one sugar molecule or two sugar molecules linked together. Complex carbohydrates are those that contain three or more sugar molecules linked together. In some cases, these chains can contain hundreds of sugars, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
A specific type of complex carbohydrate, called fiber, often gets special attention. Fiber is unique because it is the only type of carbohydrate that your body cannot physically digest. This unique property of fiber prevents it from providing nutrients to your body but enables it to perform a number of other functions. Fiber maintains your digestive health and can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Fiber can also keep you full for extended periods of time, which helps prevent overeating and allows you to manage your weight.
Whole vs. Refined
When deciding which carbohydrates you want to eat, it is beneficial to choose whole carbohydrates rather than refined carbohydrates. Whole carbohydrates contain all parts of the wheat kernel, which includes the germ, endosperm and bran. Refined carbohydrates undergo extensive processing that removes the bran and germ. The refining process makes these carbohydrates more shelf-stable and visually appealing, but it also removes important nutrients, such as fiber, iron and B vitamins, according to ChooseMyPlate.gov, a website run by the USDA.
Examples of whole carbohydrates include whole grains, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, oats, fruits, vegetables and beans. Refined carbohydrates include white bread, white pasta, white rice, candy, fruit juice and sugary cereals.
Many refined carbohydrates are enriched, which means that vitamins and minerals are added back at some point after processing. Fiber cannot be replaced. If you do choose refined carbohydrates over whole carbohydrates, ChooseMyPlate.gov recommends that you look for the word "enriched" on the nutrition label to ensure that these carbohydrates do contain some important nutrients.
- Harvard School of Public Health: Carbohydrates
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: Why Is it Important to Eat Grains, Especially Whole Grains?
- "Nutrition and You"; Joan Salge Blake; 2008