The importance of carbohydrates lies in their role in energy production. The body uses carbohydrates as its main source of fuel for many activities, and carbs are one of three macronutrients the body uses for fuel.
Protein, carbohydrates and fats are the three macronutrients. Protein and carbs contain 4 calories per gram, and fat contains 9. Each macronutrient serves a separate role in the body. Carbohydrates are mostly found in plant life and is the term used to describe sugars, fruits, vegetables, fiber and legumes.
The Role of Carbohydrates
Aside from being an energy source for the body, the National Library of Medicine explains that carbohydrates play a role in glucose and insulin metabolism, as well as cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism and fermentation. When carbohydrates are digested, they are broken down into glucose to be either used as energy or stored in the liver and muscles for future use.
Part of the importance of carbs is that they are your body's preferred energy source. The Mayo Clinic describes that once the sugars and starches in carbohydrates are broken down and absorbed, they enter your bloodstream, which is then called blood glucose. This glucose in the blood stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin tells the body to either absorb the glucose to use as energy or to store it.
This process, as explained in the November 2014 issue of Advances in Nutrition, is significant because this glucose is used as the main energy source for the brain, red blood cells and the central nervous system.
Types of Carbohydrates
There are four types of carbohydrates. They are simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, fiber and starches. Simple carbohydrates are very quickly and easily digested, raising blood sugar rapidly. Examples of simple carbs are lactose, sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, ribose and galactose.
These sugars are found in products like candy, soda, table sugar, corn syrup and honey. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health warns that these types of carbohydrates can contribute to weight gain or an inability to lose weight, heart disease and diabetes.
Read more: List of Good Carbohydrates to Eat
Complex carbohydrates are those that digest at a slower rate and only gradually raise blood sugar. Examples are rutinulose, cellulose, dextrin and amylose. These are found in foods such as lentils, whole grains, brown rice, spinach, broccoli and apples.
The importance of carbohydrates of this type is that they contain many vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Choosing complex carbs over simple is ideal. Unprocessed or minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans are healthy choices.
Starches are produced by plants, called polysaccharides, and are made up of many glucose molecules. Examples of starchy foods are potatoes, chickpeas, wheat and pasta. Fiber is a non-digestible part of carbohydrates.
Read more: List of Foods High in Soluble Fiber
There are two types of fiber — soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is helpful in lowering low-density lipoprotein, which is cholesterol that is undesirable in high amounts in the body. Insoluble fiber absorbs water in the intestines, helping to soften the stool for easy bowel movements. Insoluble fiber is found in seeds, vegetable skins, brown rice, vegetables and brans.
How Many Carbs Per Day?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 45 to 65 percent of daily calories come from carbohydrates. Filling most of your plate with carbohydrates is ideal. Using the Healthy Eating Plate from Harvard Health, half of your plate should consist of vegetables and fruit and a quarter of your plate should be complex carbohydrates.
Do not neglect the importance of protein. Be sure to fill a quarter of your plate with protein such as lean meats, low-fat dairy, fish, beans and nuts.
Be sure to include about 30 grams of fiber per day in your diet. Eating enough fiber is important in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, strokes and digestive issues. Fiber also helps prevent constipation and helps to keep you feeling full. It also plays a role in balancing gut bacteria as it acts as a prebiotic.
- National Library of Medicine: "Physiology, Carbohydrates"
- The Mayo Clinic: "Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit Into a Healthy Diet"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Carbohydrates"
- Harvard Health: "Carbohydrates"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- Harvard Health: "Healthy Eating Plate"
- USDA: "How Many Calories are in One Gram of Fat, Carbohydrate or Protein?"