Carbohydrates, fat, and protein make up the three macronutrient groups that are essential components of any diet.
There are, however, different types of carbohydrates and it is essential to know the difference between them in order to understand which ones to eat and which ones it is best to avoid.
Simple vs. complex carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are one of the body’s primary sources of energy and represent an essential part of any healthful diet.
The different types of carbohydrates vary in terms of the impact they have on a person’s health.
Fiber, starch, and sugar are all carbohydrates.
There are three broad groups of carbohydrates:
- Monosaccharides: This is the most basic form of carbohydrate. Examples of monosaccharides include glucose and fructose.
- Disaccharides: These are two monosaccharide molecules bonded together. Examples include lactose and sucrose.
- Polysaccharides: This refers to chains of more than two monosaccharide molecules bonded together. Examples include fiber and starch.
Monosaccharides and disaccharides make up the different types of sugars and are known as simple carbohydrates. They provide a rapid source of energy.
Fiber and starch are made from polysaccharides and are known as complex carbohydrates. They contain longer chains of molecules that take longer for the body to break down and digest.
Foods that contain complex carbohydrates are generally more nutritious than those that contain simple carbohydrates. Examples of complex carbohydrates include whole grain foods and vegetables. Examples of simple carbohydrates include corn syrup, soda, and cookies.
How to eat carbohydrates in a healthful way
Many people choose to maintain a low-carb diet or to cut carbohydrates out entirely.
However, it is not a good idea to go on a low or no-carb diet unless a doctor specifically advises, as it may not be beneficial to some people.
Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient and a valuable energy source.
However, a healthful diet should include more nutritious complex carbohydrates than simple carbohydrates that contain little to no nutritional value.
It is easy to replace many common types of simple carbohydrates with more healthful alternatives. For example:
- Replace fizzy drinks or fruit juices made from concentrate with water or natural fruit juices.
- Choose whole fruits instead of foods that are high in added sugar, such as cakes or cookies.
- Eat whole grain pasta, whole wheat couscous, or quinoa rather than white pasta.
- Swap white bread for whole grain bread, or wraps.
- Snack on nuts instead of potato chips.
Many food producers offer ‘low-carb’ versions of their products. However, be aware that some may be highly processed and contain artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other unhealthful additives.
Some of these products contain lots of calories and lack any nutritional benefits. This is because manufacturers often remove the whole grains and replace them with other fillers.
A balanced diet should include natural, unprocessed complex carbohydrates that are rich in nutrients including:
- whole grains
Many of these foods are high in fiber. Fiber is an essential nutrient for maintaining a healthy digestive system and may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes in some people. Replacing foods high in saturated fat or sugar with complex carbohydrates rich in fiber is also an effective way of consuming fewer calories.
Despite containing fructose, which is a simple carbohydrate, fruits are very nutritious and contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
While natural fruit juice contains a high level of vitamins and minerals, it is low in fiber. For this reason, it is best to consume fruit juice in moderation and eat whole fruits instead.
Avoid fruit juice made from concentrate as it contains high levels of added sugar.
Carbohydrates are highly nutritious and a valuable source of energy.
It is, however, essential to know the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates.
Limit simple carbohydrates as they do not satiate hunger very well and are typically present in foods with low nutritional content.
Increase the number of complex carbohydrates as they can make a person feel fuller for longer and are typically highly nutritious.