What are Good Carbohydrates?

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It may surprise some people to know our bodies and brains are fueled by sugar. Primarily, we get our energy from glucose and other single-molecule sugars called monosaccharides. Carbohydrates are the class of substances that can be broken down into simple sugars directly.

Types of Carbohydrates

Monosaccharides
Also called simple sugars, these contain a single molecule. Some examples are glucose, fructose (found in honey), and ribose (the backbone of RNA and DNA).
Disaccharides
Monosaccharides can link together to form chains. A disaccharide is a combination of two molecules. Some examples are sucrose (common table sugar) and lactose (milk sugar).
Polysaccharides
These are longer chains of single sugars and are commonly found in foodstuffs. Starch is a general name for polysaccharides. In the body, glycogen is a polysaccharide used to store excess glucose.
Besides being used as a way to store sugars, polysaccharides are used in the animal and plant kingdom to form structural elements. Chitin is a polysaccharide that forms the hard exoskeleton of insects. Wood gets its strength from cellulose, which is a polysaccharide, composed of many repeating sugar molecules. Unfortunately, these types of sugars are not digestible by humans.

Carbohydrates are not considered essential nutrients for the body. This is because we can synthesize what we need from protein and fats. However, they are efficient sources of calories. Current recommendations are that 60% - 70% of daily energy needs come in the form of carbohydrates. This generally refers to starches more than simple sugars alone.

The reason that starches are preferred to mono and disaccharides is that sudden spikes in blood glucose levels stimulate large insulin secretions. Over a lifetime, this is thought to interfere with our ability to utilize insulin properly. Starches are broken down into simple sugars, but the process takes time, leading to a more gradual absorption into the blood stream.

photo by Nyboer Creative

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