Carbohydrates Health Benefits and Risks to Your Body

Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products. Though often maligned in trendy diets, carbohydrates — one of the basic food groups — are important to a healthy diet. They are called carbohydrates because, at the chemical level, they contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

In general, carbohydrates are macronutrients, meaning they are one of the three main ways the body obtains energy or calories. In fact, the American Diabetes Association notes that carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy.

Carbohydrates
How does Consuming Carbohydrates help your body? – Image by Zefe wu from Pixabay

Basically, there are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Whereby, macronutrients are essential for proper body functioning, and the body requires large amounts of them. However, all macronutrients must be obtained through diet since the body cannot produce them on its own.

The recommended daily amount (RDA) of carbs for adults is 135 grams, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, the NIH also recommends that everyone should have his or her own carbohydrate goal. Carbs intake for most people should be between 45% and 65% of total calories.

One gram of carbohydrates equals about 4 calories. So, a diet of 1,800 calories per day would equal about 202 grams on the low end and 292 grams of carbs on the high end. However, people with diabetes should not eat more than 200 grams of carbs per day. While pregnant women need at least 175 grams.

What are the Functions of Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates provide fuel for the central nervous system and energy for working muscles. They also prevent protein from being used as an energy source and enable fat metabolism.

Also, carbohydrates are important for brain function. For one thing, they are an influence on “mood, memory, etc., as well as a quick energy source.” In fact, the RDA of carbohydrates is based on the number of carbs the brain needs to function.

Two recent studies published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have also linked carbs to decision-making. In the studies, people who ate a high-carbohydrate breakfast were less willing to share when playing the “ultimatum game” than those who ate high-protein breakfasts.

Scientists speculate this may be caused by baseline dopamine levels, which are higher after eating carbohydrates. This doesn’t mean carbs make you mean but underscores how different types of food intake can affect cognition and behavior.

How are Carbohydrates classified?

Important to realize, carbohydrates are classified as simple or complex carbs. Whereby, the difference between the two forms is the chemical structure and how quickly the sugar is absorbed and digested.

Generally speaking, simple carbs are digested and absorbed more quickly and easily than complex carbs, according to the NIH. With simple carbohydrates containing just one or two sugars. Such as fructose (found in fruits) and galactose (found in milk products). These single sugars are called monosaccharides.

Carbs with two sugars — such as sucrose (table sugar), lactose (from dairy) and maltose (found in beer and some vegetables) — are called disaccharides, according to the NIH. Simple carbs are also in candy, soda, and syrups.

However, these foods are made with processed and refined sugars and do not have vitamins, minerals or fiber. They are called “empty calories” and can lead to weight gain.

Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) have three or more sugars and are often referred to as starchy foods. Including beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, potatoes, corn, parsnips, whole-grain bread, and cereals.

What are the Benefits of Carbohydrates?

While all carbohydrates function as relatively quick energy sources, simple carbs cause bursts of energy much more quickly than complex carbs. Simply, because of the quicker rate at which they are digested and absorbed. Simple carbs can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and sugar highs, while complex carbs provide more sustained energy.

Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates Health Benefits you Should know – Image by RitaE from Pixabay

Studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with simple carbs, such as those in many processed foods, is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Therefore, it’s best to focus on getting primarily complex carbs in your diet, including whole grains and vegetables.

To simply put, the right kind of carbs can be incredibly good for you. Not only are they necessary for your health, but they carry a variety of added benefits.

Here are the simplified health benefits of carbohydrates;

1. Mental Health

Carbohydrates may be important to mental health. A study published in 2009 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that people on a high-fat, low-carb diet for a year had more anxiety, depression, and anger than people on a low-fat, high-carb diet. Scientists suspect that carbohydrates help with the production of serotonin in the brain.

Carbs may help memory, too. A 2008 study at Tufts University had overweight women cut carbs entirely from their diets for one week. Then, they tested the women’s cognitive skills, visual attention, and spatial memory. The women on no-carb diets did worse than overweight women on low-calorie diets that contained a healthy amount of carbohydrates.

2. Weight Loss

Though carbs are often blamed for weight gain, the right kind of carbs can actually help you lose and maintain a healthy weight. This happens because many good carbohydrates, especially whole grains and vegetables with skin, contain fiber. It is difficult to get sufficient fiber on a low-carb diet. Dietary fiber helps you to feel full and generally comes in relatively low-calorie foods.

A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2009 followed middle-aged women for 20 months and found that participants who ate more fiber lost weight, while those who decreased their fiber intake gained weight. Another recent study linked fat loss with low-fat diets, not low-carb ones.

While some studies have found that low-carb diets do help people lose weight, a meta-analysis conducted in 2015 and published in The Lancet found that when viewed long term, low-fat and low-carb diets had similar success rates. People lost more weight early on while on low-carb diets but after a year they were all in similar places.

3. Nutrients Source

Whole, unprocessed fruits and vegetables are well known for their nutrient content. Some are even considered superfoods because of it — and all of these leafy greens, bright sweet potatoes, juicy berries, tangy citruses, and crunchy apples contain carbs.

One important, plentiful source of good carbs are whole grains. A large study published in 2010 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that those eating the most whole grains had significantly higher amounts of fiber. With increased energy and polyunsaturated fats, as well as all micronutrients (except vitamin B12 and sodium).

An additional study, published in 2014 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, found that whole grains contain antioxidants, which were previously thought to exist almost exclusively in fruits and vegetables.

4. Heart Health

Fiber also helps to lower cholesterol, said Kelly Toups, a registered dietitian with the Whole Grains Council. The digestive process requires bile acids, which are made partly with cholesterol. As your digestion improves, the liver pulls cholesterol from the blood to create more bile acid, thereby reducing the amount of LDL, the “bad” cholesterol.

Toups referenced a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that looked at the effect of whole grains on patients taking cholesterol-lowering medications called statins. Those who ate more than 16 grams of whole grains daily had lower bad-cholesterol levels than those who took the statins without eating the whole grains.

What you Should Know about Sugars, Starches, and fibers

In the body, carbs break down into smaller units of sugar, such as glucose and fructose. The small intestine absorbs these smaller units, which then enter the bloodstream and travel to the liver. The liver converts all of these sugars into glucose, which is carried through the bloodstream. Accompanied by insulin — and converted into energy for basic body functioning and physical activity.

If the glucose is not immediately needed for energy, the body can store up to 2,000 calories of it in the liver and skeletal muscles in the form of glycogen. Once glycogen stores are full, carbs are stored as fat.

Read More About Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fibers promote healthy bowel movements and decrease the risk of chronic diseases. Such as coronary heart disease and diabetes. However, unlike sugars and starches, fibers are not absorbed in the small intestine and are not converted to glucose.

Instead, they pass into the large intestine relatively intact, where they are converted to hydrogen and carbon dioxide and fatty acids. The Institute of Medicine recommends that people consume 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories. Sources of fiber include fruits, grains, and vegetables, especially legumes.

In addition, carbs are also found naturally in some forms of dairy and both starchy and nonstarchy vegetables. For example, nonstarchy vegetables like lettuces, kale, green beans, celery, carrots, and broccoli all contain carbs. Starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn also contain carbohydrates but in larger amounts.

According to the American Diabetes Association, nonstarchy vegetables generally contain only about 5 grams of carbohydrates per cup of raw vegetables. And most of those carbs come from fiber.

How do you Make the Right choice of Carbohydrates?

Carbs are highly controversial these days. The dietary guidelines suggest that we get about half of our calories from carbs. For some reason, others claim that carbs cause obesity and type 2 diabetes and that most people should be avoiding them.

There are good arguments on both sides, and it appears that carbohydrate requirements depend largely on the individual. Some people do better with lower carb intake, while others do just fine eating plenty of carbs.

Read More About Good Carbs, Bad Carbs — How to Make the Right Choices

According to Healthy Geezer Fred Cicetti, carbs commonly considered bad include pastries, sodas, highly processed foods, white rice, white bread, and other white-flour foods.

These are foods with simple carbs. Bad carbs rarely have any nutritional value. By the same token, carbs usually considered good are complex carbs. Like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes.

As can be seen, the Pritikin Longevity Center offers this checklist for determining if a carbohydrate is “good” or “bad.”

Good Carbs Are:

  • Low or moderate in calories
  • High in nutrients
  • Devoid of refined sugars and refined grains
  • High in naturally occurring fiber
  • Low in sodium
  • Low in saturated fat
  • Very low in, or devoid of, cholesterol and trans fats

Bad Carbs Are:

  • High in calories
  • Full of refined sugars, like corn syrup, white sugar, honey, and fruit juices
  • High in refined grains like white flour
  • Low in many nutrients
  • Low in fiber
  • High in sodium
  • Sometimes high in saturated fat
  • Sometimes high in cholesterol and trans fats

Recently, nutritionists have said that it’s not the type of carbohydrate, but rather the carb’s glycemic index, that’s important. The glycemic index measures how quickly and how much a carbohydrate raises blood sugar.

What is the Role of the Glycemic index?

Carbohydrates are an essential part of our dietary plan, but not all carbohydrate foods are equal. With this in mind, the Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels.

Carbohydrates with a low GI value (55 or less) are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized and cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and, therefore usually, insulin levels. High-glycemic foods like pastries raise blood sugar highly and rapidly. While low-glycemic foods raise it gently and to a lesser degree.

Some research has linked high-glycemic foods with diabetes, obesity, heart disease and certain cancers, according to Harvard Medical School. On the other hand, recent research suggests that following a low-glycemic diet may not actually be helpful.

A 2014 study published in JAMA found that overweight adults eating a balanced diet did not see much additional improvement on a low-calorie, low-glycemic index diet. Scientists measured insulin sensitivity, systolic blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol and saw that the low-glycemic diet did not improve them. It did lower triglycerides.

Do Carbohydrates have any Health Risks?

Of course, Yes! For instance, not getting enough carbs can cause problems. Without sufficient fuel, the body gets no energy. Additionally, without sufficient glucose, the central nervous system suffers. As a result, which may cause dizziness or mental and physical weakness, according to Iowa State University.

If the body has insufficient carbohydrate intake or stores, it will consume protein for fuel. This is problematic because the body needs protein to make muscles.

On the other hand, using protein for fuel instead of carbohydrates also puts stress on the kidneys. Leading to the passage of painful byproducts in the urine, according to the University of Cincinnati. People who don’t consume enough carbohydrates may also suffer from insufficient fiber, which can cause digestive problems and constipation.

Resourceful References;

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