Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara on plate
Education

Carbohydrates

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Today, we are continuing our “nutritional basics” series with one about carbohydrates. Many people are confused about carbohydrates and the role they play in our overall diet. In fact, carbohydrates have – to a certain degree – been made the “enemy” (of something… I am not even sure what 😂). Let us take a closer look.

Spicy Breakfast Bowl with nachos, lime, garlic, and avocado photographed on a marble background
Spicy Breakfast Bowl

What are Carbohydrates?

Very simply spoken, carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient. “Macro” refers to the fact that we need many of it. The other two macronutrients are protein and fat. Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet. They provide our bodies with glucose, which gets converted into energy within the body and is used for physical activity (in this context I mean daily living, not necessarily exercise. But it can, of course, also be used for exercise 😉). The body’s end goal with carbohydrates is to break them down so that they become glucose (also synonymously called sugar in the context of this post).

Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara on plate
Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara

Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

Not all carbohydrates are created equal though. Food’s chemical structure can either make this process of getting to said sugar for our digestive tract and bodies harder or easier. To be clear: We want the harder variety as much as possible. I will cover why as part of this post. As a general rule though, carbohydrates contain three components: Starch, fiber, and sugar. Complex carbs tend to contain more starch and fiber, than sugar. Simple carbohydrates contain more sugar.

A bowl of Roasted Red Pepper Soup with a spoon stuck in photographed on a white background with scattered rosemary, lentils, and black pepper
Roasted Red Pepper Soup

Complex Carbohydates

Complex carbohydrates are unprocessed, or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes. They tend to contain a lot more starch and fiber than simple carbohydrates. They also need a lot longer by our digestive tract to be broken down to get to the final product. This means that the glucose from complex carbohydrates is slowly released into the bloodstream, which causes blood sugar levels to then rise gradually. These types of carbohydrates also contain vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, and phytonutrients (which act as antioxidants in our bodies).

Wild Rice Salad with Roasted Butternut Squash photographed up close
Wild Rice with Roasted Butternut Squash

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates have a very easy chemical structure and are mainly made up of sugar. Because this structure is so simple and can therefore be broken down by the body easily you tend to notice a burst of energy after having consumed a simple carbohydrate because it significantly and quickly rises your blood sugar levels. This feeling is then quickly followed by feelings of tiredness afterward. Simple carbohydrates tend to include white bread, pastries, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods.

Lentil Mushroom Walnut "Meat" Loaf cut into pieces on a chopping board with a knife in the background. Shot from above.
Lentil Mushroom Walnut “Meat” Loaf

Why Simple Carbohydrates Can Raise Blood Sugar Levels

If you have been following me for a while, you know that I am super passionate about blood sugar levels and keeping them stable. Why? Let’s first look at what happens when we eat food. When blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps to bring sugar from the bloodstream into cells for energy. Once those cells absorb sugar, blood sugar levels fall.

When this happens, the pancreas starts to make a hormone called glucagon, which signals to the liver to release stored sugar. This interplay between insulin and glucagon allows our blood sugar levels to be stable. Now you understand my statement above. When blood sugar levels rise fast (because there is little for the body to digest and it can use sugar “straight” in its purest form), they also fall fast and both insulin and glucagon have a lot more work cut out for them. This can lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes where your body is not able to continue to produce enough insulin. Continuous spikes in blood sugar levels can also lead to weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease. More immediately, the blood sugar rollercoaster can make you feel dizzy, irritable, sweaty, and weak.

Creamy Mushroom and Leek Pasta on a dark plate with cut leeks visible in the background
Creamy Mushroom and Leek Pasta

How do I know how Carbohydrates Affect my Blood Sugar Levels?

You can find out how much a food raises your blood sugar level by looking at the Glycemic Index. The Glycemic Index ranks carbohydrates on a scale of 0 to 100 in terms of how quickly they raise blood sugar levels. A food that has a value of 55 or less is considered low on the glycemic index. A food between 70 and 100 is considered high.

When it comes to blood sugar levels and their rise there are two things to consider though: (1) As we have covered above, the less processed, whole food orientated the carbohydrate the longer it needs time to digest and therefore the slower blood sugar levels rise. (2) Pairing carbohydrates with protein and fat further slows down digestion and ensures a steady rise in blood sugar levels. For example, an apple contains nutrients, fiber, and natural sugars. If you eat it with a bit of almond butter (and cinnamon, which is also great for blood sugar levels) you are slowing down the blood sugar release.

Chocolate Raspberry Overnight Oats topped with raspberries shot from a side angle
Raspberry Chocolate Overnight Oats

What is the Take-Away from this Post?

As with all things, I am here to provide you with an insight that then allows you to make the best decisions for your own health. Here is my personal view when it comes to blood sugar levels: Yes, you can go away and study charts and the glycemic index. Personally, I do not worry to much about it because I know that the closer “to nature” I eat, the more my blood sugar levels are stable. And I try to stick to this as much as I can. That does not mean that simple carbohydrates cannot be delicious and enjoyed from time to time 😉.

I hope you found this overview and insight helpful 💚!! If you want to learn more about some of the other food groups that we have covered so far, check out:

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