Carbohydrates often get clumped together in two extreme categories: good and bad. Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of energy. Everyone needs them, but it's important to known which ones are good for you and which ones aren't.
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Often referred to as simple and complex carbohydrates, the three types of carbs — sugar, starch, and fiber — all have a place in your diet. Simple carbohydrates are monosaccharides and disaccharides, while starches and fiber are polysaccharides.
Carbohydrates are classified according to their chemical structure. Monosaccharides are the simplest form of carbs. They are glucose, fructose, and galactose. Glucose is commonly referred to as blood sugar and naturally occurs in fruits and sweeteners. Fructose is fruit sugar and is also the sugar in honey and vegetables. Galactose helps form lactose.
Disaccharides are sugars that will eventually be broken down into monosaccharides. They contain two carbohydrates linked together. Sucrose, lactose, and maltose are disaccharides. Sucrose is plain table sugar, lactose is the sugar found in milk, and maltose is found in germinating grains.
Polysaccharides are the most complex of carbohydrates. They are the starches and fiber in the diet. They are made of many monosaccharides joined together.
Simple Carbohydrates for Energy
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body and the brain prefers glucose over anything else. Simple sugars are easily used for energy and are rapidly absorbed by the body, because they can be broken down quickly in to glucose.
Fructose and sucrose are natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables. Lactose is the natural sugar in milk. When you obtain natural sugar from whole foods such as these, you gain the energy boost together with vital nutrients.
Added sugars, sugar that is added during food processing, contribute calories for energy but don't have other redeeming qualities. They lack nutrients, cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar, and promote weight gain, notes the American Heart Association.
Starches for Energy
Different types of starches are digested at varying rates. Starches can be broken down into glucose to provide energy for the body. Some are slowly digested, giving you long-term energy and helping you feel full. Other starches, such as highly processed grains, digest rapidly and can spike blood sugar. The third type, called resistant starch, isn't digested; it’s fermented in the large intestine and is great for gut health.
Many foods with starch contain more than one type of carbohydrates and some starches are available for energy sooner than others, according to an article in the March 2011 issue of “Nutrients.”
Starchy foods, such as whole grains, peas, beans, corn, pasta, rice, and potatoes, deliver essential vitamins, minerals and fiber. Many, such as peas and bean are also sources of protein. Avoid refined grains and go with whole grains to get the full nutritional benefit.
Fiber and Its Health Benefits
When you consume fiber, most of it goes through your digestive tract without being digested. Fiber-rich foods, such as beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, contain different proportions of the two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber keeps your blood sugar steady by slowing down the absorption of carbs into your system. It also helps bind to fat and cholesterol and removes it from the body, which can help lower your blood cholesterol level. Soluble fiber can be found in citrus fruits, apples, legumes, and oats.
Insoluble fiber prevents constipation by keeping digestive wastes moving through your intestines, this can reduce the risk of hemorrhoids and diverticular disease. Brown rice, oats, popcorn, nuts, and seeds are sources of insoluble fiber.
Fiber passes through the body, so it is not a source of energy, or calories. Women should consume 25 grams of fiber daily, while men need to get 38 grams each day, according to the Institute of Medicine.