Everything You Need to Know About Carbohydrates

• 14 min read 13


When it’s present in almost every food you eat, it’s essential to know if it’s a friend or a foe and how to choose the right carbohydrates for your diet.

Carbohydrates. You might have heard of this name, probably during your schooling or read somewhere on the internet. However, the real question is, do you need to be aware of this term and know more about it?

The answer is – definitely yes.

Almost everything that you eat has carbohydrates or as some people refer to it, carbs in it (because less is more). Therefore, it’s essential that you be aware of what this is and how it affects your diet and health.

Having a good understanding of your diet will help you structure it better by choosing the right foods. A good diet will do wonders for your body.

Before we dive into any details, let’s first understand what carbohydrates are and what do they do in your body.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the various macronutrients like proteins and fats that are present in the food you take. They are utilized by the body to maintain its proper day to day functioning.

One of the most common forms of carbohydrates is glucose. You might have heard of glucose and have voluntarily taken some to create a surge of energy in your body in the form of health drinks.

It is recommended to take in 45-65% of the total calorie intake from carbohydrates

Your body needs carbohydrates to provide energy to the muscle and other tissues and keep your engine running. Consider it as your body’s go-to fuel for performing its essential functions including the functioning of the brain.

You might be able to notice that your brain becomes a little foggy and your body weak when you’re running low on carbohydrates (somebody hand me a bottle of Gatorade).

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it is recommended to take in 45-65% of the total calorie intake from carbohydrates, for all age groups and sexes. [1][2] Given the fact that carbohydrates are available in plenty in almost everything we eat in our daily life, hitting this mark shouldn’t be a challenge at all. Particularly with all the sugary foods (🍰) available in the market.

The challenge, however, lies in what kind of carbohydrate are we adding to our diet. The wrong kind is not only known to make you fat but also cause all sorts of diseases.

Before moving onto the different kinds of carbohydrates available and the one we should be taking, let’s have a quick look at how the body processes carbohydrates.

How are carbohydrates used by the body?

Once taken, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose or other simple sugars such as galactose or fructose if not already present in this form. Simple sugars are then transported through the blood into various tissues such as the muscle and fat tissues for mainly three cases:

  1. Either be used up by the cells as a means of energy, about 4 calories per gram
  2. Be converted to glycogen and stored in the tissues for supplying energy when the body needs it for surviving in between your meals
  3. Excess amounts gets converted into triglycerides (or fat) and stored for later usage

You might have heard of “low-carb diet” which is nothing but diet which is not so rich in carbohydrates. Such a diet is primarily meant for preventing excess glucose flowing around in the body and allow the body to deplete those fat reserves. Here’s a good example of a low-carb diet.

This is the reason why you will see many athletes go on such a diet when they are during their cutting phase. In simple terms, they are shaving off any extra body fat and preventing any additional accumulation to chisel their physique.

This process of carbohydrate breakdown and glucose absorption happens in stages based on what form of carbohydrates you have taken in your food.

Not all carbohydrates are broken down in the same amount of time and effort. Some are even left undigested, which brings us to our next topic which is the different types of carbohydrates available in our diet.

The two sides of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be widely classified into two major forms – simple and complex. Each of the two gets digested differently and has their own effect on our body. To better understand how they affect our body, let’s understand what they are.

Simple Carbohydrates

These are mostly monosaccharides or disaccharides. Meaning, these are nothing but small chained sugar molecules which take up less time and effort to break down in the body. As a result of that, they are able to provide a rapid burst of energy after being processed by your digestive system (imagine your body on nitro mode 🚀).

Simple Carbohydrates - Ice Cream
Photo Credit: Sarah Pflug

But how? Are they some sort of extra performance fuel?

Remember the body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (monosaccharide) for utilization in the form of energy?

Being already present in the broken-down or less-complex form simple carbohydrates are easily digested by the body in less time. As a result, this process increases the blood glucose level by a considerable amount in a short span of time. Thus, pumping up your body a sudden burst of energy.

It is a burst in the true sense. It doesn’t last long and withers as fast as it rose.

Complex Carbohydrates

These are polysaccharides meaning that they bear complex and longer chains of sugar molecules. Being so, they need to be broken down into the final raw material which is a monosaccharide or in general glucose.

Complex Carbohydrates - Oatmeal
Photo Credit: Monika Grabkowska

Requiring multiple passes of breakdown to be finally utilized for energy, they generally take up a much longer digestion time than their simple counterparts.

Complex carbohydrates sit comfortably in the digestive tract for a long period of time getting digested and broken down slowly. As they are digested they release glucose or energy as you might say in a slow but consistent manner.

The main difference here is that unlike simple carbohydrates, complex ones don’t spike up blood glucose level as they maintain a steady flow. This is also why having complex carbohydrates especially the ones rich in fiber makes you feel full for a longer time and keeps your body going without getting fatigued after a short time.

By now, you might be wondering how can you distinguish between the two on the basis of the food that you are taking. Well (hold your horses), we will get to that in a later section of this article. In the meantime, let’s have a look at how the digestion process of these carbohydrates affects our body.

The infamous “Insulin Spike”

If you have been searching long for fitness related topics on the internet, you must have come across a process known as insulin spiking and how it’s bad for you. Although it’s not very good for you, if you can use it smartly it can be your friend rather than foe.

Like we discussed, whenever you take in carbohydrates it gets broken down into glucose and is released into the bloodstream. It is then transported to the various tissues such as muscle tissue and adipose (read fat) tissue which take up this glucose for functioning and storage respectively.

Think of insulin as a swipe card which when swiped at the insulin receptor, opens up the door for the nutrients to enter

However, the tissues must absorb the incoming glucose. For this, each tissue has glucose receptors (kind of like gates through which glucose can walk into the tissue house). This is not the only receptor though. There is another receptor called the insulin receptor.

Whenever there is a rise in blood glucose, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. This insulin signals the tissues to open their gates for nutrient absorption (glucose, amino acids, and creatine) by interacting with the insulin receptor in each tissue.

Think of insulin as a swipe card which when swiped at the insulin receptor, opens up the door for the nutrients to enter.

The liver’s release of insulin is proportional to the rise of glucose in the bloodstream. The more glucose, the more insulin is released to flush out the glucose from the blood.

Insulin Spike
Figure 1. Sudden rise in blood glucose level which triggers an insulin spike

Simple carbohydrates being digested rapidly results in a sudden and significant rise of glucose in the bloodstream. This, in turn, causes the liver to open its floodgates and release a significant amount of insulin to tame the rise of glucose. In short, insulin spike. [3]

The body’s requirement of glucose at a particular time is limited. Any additional glucose is stored as fat in the adipose tissues, to be used later on when glucose levels are at a shortage in the blood.

Take this for an example, suppose right now your body needs about 10g of glucose per hour. You decide to eat a bag of crispies which provides about 50g of glucose in a few minutes.

What happens to the surplus of 40g?

It gets stored as fat and increases your waistline (time to get some new pants).

This is why insulin spike from simple carbohydrates is so frowned upon. Being readily digested, simple carbohydrates provide a burst of glucose in the bloodstream. The body not being able to properly utilize all it, stores the excess as fat.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, provides a steady flow of glucose into the blood because they take up a lot of time to be broken down into usable glucose. This maintains a steady flow of insulin as well which results in an efficient uptake of nutrition without storing much as an excess.

Simple carbohydrates might seem evil but they have their uses. You can have simple carbohydrates and still get away with it if you get the timing right. We’ll talk about that now.

Timing carbohydrates to your advantage

Now that we know that simple carbohydrates spike up your insulin levels, the question is whether to avoid them completely or can they be used smartly to benefit the body instead of harming it.

The answer – timing.

If you get the timing right with simple carbohydrates then you can actually benefit from it.

Since they provide a burst of glucose to your body, the best time to have simple carbohydrates is when your body is screaming for nutrition, which is after an intense workout session.

Couple Jogging on a Bridge
Photo Credit: Curtis MacNewton

You can treat yourself to a limited quantity of simple carbohydrate foods right after you step out of the gym or come home after that jogging or swimming session. [4]

With this approach, nutrients get delivered quickly to your body when it needs them the most and don’t leave much scope for the accumulation of excess glucose in the form of fat (a win-win situation for you).

Keep the intake to a minimum, though. Too much of it can backfire.

During the other parts of the day especially before bed, it’s advised to have complex carbohydrate foods. You will get a steady flow of glucose to your body in between your meals and no insulin spike.

All these seem very fancy but is there a way to grade foods as to which results in a burst of glucose and which results in a steady dose?

Fortunately, there is one and it’s called Glycemic Index (GI). We will talk about that in the next section.

What is Glycemic Index and how it helps?

Glycemic Index is a measure of the quality of carbohydrate that you’re taking in your meal. [5] More specifically, it’s a number that states how fast a carbohydrate will get digested in your body and rush into the bloodstream as glucose. The higher the number, the faster will the carbohydrate gets broken down in your body.

It is better and more accurate to look at the Glycemic Load of a food

This number, however, is measured against a baseline serving size of the food which is generally way more than what your usual serving size is. Therefore, it’s not sufficient to determine the actual value of the food that you are taking.

To fill in the void, another metric comes to the rescue which is called Glycemic Load (GL).

Glycemic Load takes into account both the Glycemic Index of the food as well as the amount of carbohydrate present in the serving. For example, if you consider an apple, the GI of the apple might be calculated by taking into account a serving size of 3 apples at a time. GL, however, is calculated taking a single apple, which is generally the serving size of a healthy adult. [6]

Here’s a formula to calculate the GL of any food when you know its GI and the amount you are taking:

Glycemic Load (GL) = (GI * Carbohydrate(g) per serving) / 100

Hence, it is better and more accurate to look at the GL of a food instead of the GI, as the GL will give you a more accurate reading. Also, sometimes, a food that is unhealthy GI-wise, might turn out to be healthy GL-wise.

To have an estimate on the GL, here’s what the metric implies:

  • 0 – 10: Low Glycemic Load – Super Healthy
  • 11 – 19: Medium Glycemic Load – Healthy, but keep an eye on how much you take
  • 20+: High Glycemic Load – Not so healthy, try to stay away from these foods

For a full reference on Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load for various common foods, refer to this chart or use this calculator.

Although you can get a clear picture of how fast some carbohydrate based food will turn up into glucose in your body, there are additional factors which might slow down the actual digestion process. Let’s have a look at those now.

Effect of protein, fat & fiber on carbohydrate breakdown

Contrary to the popular belief that adding protein to your diet will slow down the absorption of carbohydrates it does not. In fact, protein has a negligible effect on how a particular carbohydrate will be broken down and how fast it will reach the bloodstream as glucose. [7]

Fats, on the other hand, does slow down carbohydrate absorption when ingested along with a high carbohydrate meal. However, has no effect on how much insulin is released in response to that meal. It’s still highly dependent on the amount and type of carbohydrate that is consumed in a meal. [8]

Don’t get your hopes up in thinking that adding a shit ton of fat to your meal will counter that insulin spike – it simply does not.

Fiber content present in food does to some extent affect this rate. This is mainly due to the fact that it delays the gastric emptying which is nothing but food leaving your stomach for further processing.

Some studies have even shown that consuming fiber rich meals reduces appetite, keeps you feeling full for a longer time, decreases glycemic response to the food and thus indirectly reduces the chance of a weight gain. [9][10]

Well, by now you’re accustomed to what carbohydrates are, how they are absorbed in the body and which type of carbohydrates you should add to your meals. Let’s move to our next section which lists out the common source of carbohydrates and their relative quality.

Use this to easily customize your diet plan to suit your needs (your cheat sheet).

Common foods and their carbohydrate quality

Comparing carbohydrates simply on basis of whether they are simple or complex doesn’t make much sense.

We learned that in this article.

Therefore, let’s list out some of the commonly available sources of carbohydrates and group them on basis of their Glycemic Load or in general healthiness. [11][12]

Foods that you should aim to take

These are the foods that have a GL of up to 10:

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Wheat tortilla
  • Milk
  • Apple
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Peach
  • Watermelon
  • Pear
  • Soybean
  • Lentil
  • Peanut
  • Cherry
  • Strawberry
  • Kidney beans
  • Cashew
  • Popcorn
  • Muesli

Foods that are still healthy to have

These are the foods that have a GL ranging from 11 to 19, i.e., the mid-range:

  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Barley
  • Oatmeal
  • Banana
  • Dates
  • Grapes
  • Whole-grain spaghetti
  • White wheat flour bread
  • Apple juice, unsweetened
  • Orange juice, unsweetened
  • Kellog’s Special K
  • Sweet corn
  • Yogurt, unsweetened
  • Mashed potatoes

Foods that you should have in limited amount

These foods have a GL of more than 20 and should be generally avoided:

  • Vanilla cake
  • Bagel
  • Cornflakes
  • White rice
  • White basmati rice
  • Raisins
  • Macaroni
  • Pizza
  • Condensed milk
  • Cranberry juice
  • French fries

Do note that this is an incomplete list. Your favourite food might be missing from this list.

Refer to the citations provided in this section for a complete reference of nearly 2000 different foods around the world (that should cover pretty much everything 😎).

Now comes the question on how much of carbohydrates you should have on a daily basis and is there a point when you are having too much of carbohydrates.

Too much of carbohydrates?

Your carbohydrate intake should be based on what’s your goal – gaining weight or losing it.

If you are trying to put on mass then adding a high amount of carbohydrates to your diet will help you get the much-needed energy for your body to recover after your workout and work on building muscle.

However, if your target is losing fat, try keeping your carbohydrate consumption on the lower end. You don’t want to add in excess calories to your diet when your goal is to stay below your required calories per day.

Now that doesn’t mean you should be gulping down everything you see when you are bulking up.

Too much of carbohydrates in your diet will result in a much greater calorie intake in a day than required which will ultimately be stored as body fat – not the ideal case you are looking for, are you?

Remember this simple analogy for measuring your carbohydrate percentage according to your fitness plan – bulking up or slimming down.

To lose weight, you should give your body less amount of calories than it burns in a day.

To gain muscle, you need to consume more calories than you burn in a day for the excess amount to be used in building muscle.

However, there’s a fine line between using the excess calories for building muscle and gaining excess body fat. Make sure you don’t go overboard on carbohydrates – doesn’t matter it’s simple or complex or how low it’s glycemic load is. It will add up slow but it will add up and result in excess body fat.

Here’s an approximate ratio of carbohydrate-protein-fat for different fitness goals [13]:

Your Goal Carbohydrate (%) Protein (%) Fat (%)
Bulking Up 50 35 15
Maintenance 35 40 25
Losing Weight 20 50 30

Dealing with carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are not your enemy.

Despite all the facts that you might see on the internet, they are beneficial to your body even when you are losing weight.

In fact, TV star Christina El Moussa who is seen in HGTV’s show Flip or Flop, suffered from lack of energy throughout her day because she wasn’t eating the right carbohydrates.

According to her nutritionist, “When she does eat right, she notices that she gets more out of her high-impact workouts than if she wasn’t“.

Eating the right type and amount of carbohydrates will keep you fueled throughout the day. You will wake up fresh every morning.

Just be careful not to overdo them.

Things to do right now

Do an assessment on how much carbohydrates you are taking in your current meals:

  • Take some time out of your routine (probably 30mins will do)
  • Make a list of all the food that you generally have over a week (don’t worry, it can be random, but at least jot them down and try to average out)
  • Find out each of their Glycemic Load
  • Strike off foods from your list that are high in GL (use the resources supplied)
  • Rotate the remaining foods in your list over the week forming a meal plan (the final list will generally be pretty short)
  • Pledge to stop eating junk carbohydrates ever again

Start right now, and you will have changed your diet to a much healthier one in no time.

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