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Carbohydrates: Friend or Foe?


Let's talk about carbohydrates, one of the three important macronutrients (the others being protein and fat) that are essential for good health. This often-misunderstood macronutrient is commonly considered either "good" or "bad", but that's an oversimplification.

Carbohydrates are your body's primary source of energy and help to fuel your brain, muscles, and other important functions, however, not all carbohydrates are created equal. So, how do you tell the difference between the good and the bad? The answer is both simple and complex.

Read on to learn about the two types of carbohydrates, how your body uses them, which are "good" and "bad", and how much you should probably consume each day.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are organic molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They are commonly found in foods such as bread, pasta, rice, fruits, vegetables, and sugar.

How your body uses carbohydrates

When you eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose in the digestive system and absorbed into your bloodstream. The glucose then travels to cells throughout the body, where it's used to make energy.

This process involves breaking down the glucose into smaller parts to release energy, which is used to create ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). Think of ATP as the main energy currency of your body, it's used to power many functions, such as muscle contraction, nerve impulses, and the production of new cells. This whole process is called cellular respiration.

If your body has more glucose than it needs for energy, it can store it in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Glycogen can be quickly broken down into glucose and used for energy when the body needs it. If there is still an excess of glucose, it can be converted into fat and stored in adipose tissue (fatty tissue) for later use.

Types of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be divided into two main types: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. These differ because of their chemical makeup, how you digest them, and their impact on your blood sugar levels.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are found in foods and beverages such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, and peanuts).

They are made up of long chains of sugar molecules which take longer for your body to break down and digest. This leads to a slower and more sustained release of glucose into the bloodstream, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable and provides a longer-lasting and more consistent energy source.

Complex carbohydrates are nutrient-dense and often contain high amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. It's common for people to lack fibre in their diet and you should aim to get an adequate amount each day. Fibre feeds good gut bacteria, which promotes healthy digestion, and it slows the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, which is great for people who need to regulate their blood sugar levels.

Simple carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are found in foods and beverages such as sugary drinks, candy, and processed foods.

They are made up of easy-to-digest sugars, some of which are naturally occurring (those in fruits or milk), and others that are refined or processed and are usually added to foods like candy, baked goods, and soda.

These "added sugars" go by several different names on food packaging, including fructose, lactose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, and fruit juice concentrates. They are quickly absorbed through your gut, have little nutritional value, and can wreak havoc on your health as well as spike blood sugar levels.

Consuming too many simple carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and may increase the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

So which are good and which are bad?

Complex carbohydrates are generally considered to be "good" or healthier because they provide more sustained energy and important nutrients.

Simple carbohydrates aren't necessarily bad, they can have a place in a balanced diet. For example, fruits and dairy products contain some simple carbohydrates but contain far more nutrients than other foods that contain simple carbohydrates, like sweets or cakes. It's fine to enjoy simple carbohydrates in moderation, but they should not be your primary source of carbohydrates.

To help you moderate your intake of simple carbohydrates, here are 3 tips to help you avoid and identify them in the food you purchase:

  1. Choose whole grains, such as whole-wheat flour, bulgur, brown rice and oatmeal, over processed ones, such as white rice and baked goods made with white flour.

  2. Scan the ingredient labels of foods like bread and pasta and look for fewer sources of "added sugar".

  3. Ingredients on labels are often listed in descending order by weight. So, if you see anything like cane sugar, honey, molasses, maple sugar, or agave in the first 3–4 ingredients, it means that the food is high in added sugars. Put it back on the shelf.

So what should you do?

The bottom line is that no carbohydrates are completely bad for you. Both simple and complex carbohydrates are parts of a healthy diet that is both balanced and sustainable.

Simply ensure that you generally skip foods that are not nutrient-dense, pay attention to the levels of sugar and fibre listed on food labels, and focus on eating unprocessed foods, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

The daily recommendation for carbohydrates varies depending on your age, sex, body weight, physical activity level, and more. As a general guideline for adults, carbohydrates should make up 45–65% of your total daily calories. For example, if you consume 2,000 calories a day, you should consume between 225–325 grams of carbohydrates per day. The majority of those carbohydrates should be complex.

This will drastically change depending on individual needs, such as an athlete who engages in intense exercise needing more energy to support their activities, or individual preferences, such as someone choosing to restrict their carbohydrate intake.

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