Updated: May 18
Carbohydrates are a vital component of a healthy diet, providing the body with energy and supporting overall health. Despite their importance, carbohydrates have been the subject of much confusion and controversy in recent years. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the role of carbohydrates in a healthy diet and why they should be included as part of a balanced eating plan.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that provide energy to the body, along with fats and proteins. Carbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. They are made up of sugar molecules that are linked together in chains.
The role of carbohydrates in the body
Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for the body. When you eat carbohydrates, your digestive system breaks them down into glucose, which is used by your cells to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that provides energy for all cellular processes.
In addition to providing energy, carbohydrates play a key role in brain function and mood regulation. Carbohydrates help regulate serotonin levels in the brain, which can affect mood and appetite. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood, sleep, and appetite. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and other mood disorders.
Types of carbohydrates
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are composed of one or two sugar molecules and are easily digested by the body. They are found in a variety of foods, including fruits, honey, and candy. Simple carbohydrates provide a quick source of energy, but they can also cause blood sugar levels to spike and then crash, leading to feelings of fatigue and hunger. Consuming simple carbohydrates in moderation and alongside complex carbohydrates can help maintain stable blood sugar levels and provide sustained energy throughout the day.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of multiple sugar molecules linked together in chains. They take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates and provide sustained energy over a longer period of time. Complex carbohydrates are found in a variety of nutrient-dense foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, and legumes, which are also good sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are important for overall health.
Typically, complex carbohydrates are considered more healthy than simple carbohydrates. Here are a few reasons why:
Sustained energy: As mentioned earlier, complex carbohydrates take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates. This means that they provide a slower and more sustained release of energy, helping to keep you feeling full and energized for longer periods of time.
Nutrient density: Complex carbohydrates are typically found in whole foods that are rich in nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These nutrients are important for overall health and can help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.
Blood sugar regulation: Complex carbohydrates have a lower glycemic index than simple carbohydrates. This means that they don't cause blood sugar levels to spike as quickly or as high as simple carbohydrates do. This can be especially beneficial for people with diabetes or those at risk of developing the condition.
How many carbohydrates should you eat?
The amount of carbohydrates you should eat depends on your individual needs and goals. In general, it is recommended that adults get 45-65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates. This means that if you eat a 2,000 calorie diet, you should aim for 225-325 grams of carbohydrates per day.
It is important to choose healthy sources of carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Processed foods that are high in refined sugars and simple carbohydrates should be limited as much as possible.
What are examples of good carbohydrates to include in a healthy diet?
Whole grains: Brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and pasta are all good sources of complex carbohydrates and provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Fruits: Apples, bananas, berries, and oranges are all great sources of healthy carbohydrates. They also provide fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Vegetables: Leafy greens such as spinach and kale, as well as starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and winter squash, are all good sources of complex carbohydrates. They also provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans are all great sources of complex carbohydrates and protein. They also provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, peanuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are all good sources of healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates play a critical role in a healthy diet, providing the body with energy and supporting overall health. By including a variety of healthy sources of carbohydrates in your diet, you can ensure that your body has the fuel it needs to function at its best. Remember to choose complex carbohydrates over simple ones and aim for a balanced eating plan that includes all three macronutrients.