Understanding Carbohydrates and Sugar

Kara Bauer Health Guide
  • Next Thanksgiving, consider replacing your mashed potatoes with a side of whole grains and perhaps your cravings for seconds will lessen a bit. That’s probably too much to ask for such an anticipated feast, but after the holiday is a great time to start taking a closer look at the types of carbohydrates you are consuming and their impact on your health and overall cravings.

    Carbohydrates are an important source of energy, as they are needed to provide fuel to our cells. For this reason, I don’t believe in diets that restrict or eliminate carbohydrate intake. However, the types of carbohydrates we choose to consume are extremely important as they impact the quantity of food we eat, the nutrients we take in and ultimately our weight and overall health.

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    There are two types of carbohydrates, complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates include your starches and are found in foods such as grains, beans, nuts, seeds and vegetables in their natural, unprocessed state. Some of the more common whole grains include brown rice, wheat, barley, kamut, spelt and bulgur as well as gluten-free varieties such as quinoa, millet, amaranth and buckwheat (kasha).  Potatoes are also complex in nature, but depending on the variety can have high glycemic indices, which I’ll talk more about later.

    Simple carbohydrates include natural sugars from fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose), but also include your simple sugars found in baked goods, candy, soda and most of today’s processed foods.  Additionally, complex carbohydrates that have been refined (stripped of all their vitamins, minerals, fibers and other nutrients) to make white varieties of rice, pasta, bread, bagels, crackers and cookies are also characteristically simple carbohydrates.

    The main scientific difference that you need to be aware of is that complex carbohydrates are made up of long chains of glucose (sugar) molecules while simple carbohydrates are made up of one or two sugar molecules or units. This impacts the length of time it takes the body to absorb and digest the sugars. When we consume carbohydrates of the complex variety, the glucose is broken down slowly and uniformly, providing long lasting energy. However with simple carbohydrates, the glucose is broken down quickly, causing ups and downs in our blood sugar levels and making many organs in our bodies such as the liver and pancreas work harder to do their jobs. Eventually this can wear you down, leaving you tired, hungry, and low on energy while also leaving you susceptible to health conditions such as diabetes, adrenal exhaustion and hypoglycemia.

    Although fruits and milk products have nutritional properties, simple sugars and refined carbohydrates do not and are often described as “empty calories”.  In order for the body to properly digest these foods, the body must rob existing vitamins and minerals such as calcium and magnesium from its storage banks, depleting nutrients rather than providing them. Additionally, the body only needs a limited supply of glucose to fuel its cells. Therefore, once you’ve reached your storage capacity, the excess sugar gets converted into fat and is stored throughout the body. And, to make matters worse, with continued consumption your body’s ability to burn fat as well as release fat begins to break down, perpetuating long-term weight problems.


  • The final point I want to make relates to the glycemic index of foods. The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking that lets us know the effects a particular food will have on our blood glucose levels, as all carbohydrates are slightly different. Like simple carbohydrates, high GI foods are rapidly absorbed and digested, causing the blood sugar to rise and drop quickly. In contrast, low GI foods result in a gradual rise in blood sugar and a slower digestion process, which satisfies the body’s nutritional needs and alleviates the immediate desire to eat more. Therefore, in reference to my opening statement, whole grains are generally said to have a lower GI then mashed potatoes (although still an arguably healthy complex carbohydrate), possibly halting that craving to continue eating a bit sooner.

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    With that said, I hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving and all that you are grateful for!

Published On: November 30, 2009