They taste good, are quickly prepared and are also super cheap: pasta, rice, bread and sweets consist mainly of carbohydrates. But most of them are not winners from a nutritional point of view. That’s why everyone talks about low carb and no carb (carb = carbohydrates).
The question arises: What are carbohydrates anyway? Are they really just demonised fatteners? No, it’s not that simple. As in life, besides the bad ones, there are also the good ones of a kind. This also applies to carbohydrates. But what kind of carbohydrates are there, and which of them are good? We’ll explain all that here.
Carbohydrates belong to the macronutrients along with fat and protein. Carbs” are found for the most part in plant foods such as cereals – in animal products they are relatively rare.
Carbohydrates are quite useful because they provide the body with quickly usable energy and at the same time can be stored in the muscles as energy in the form of glycogen. One gram of carbohydrate, like one gram of protein, contains 4 calories. Fat contains more than twice that, a proud 9 calories per gram.
Why are carbohydrates important?
The macronutrient performs many functions in your body – but one of the most important functions is to provide energy. Your nervous system alone needs about 150 grams of glucose a day. They are regarded as the fuel for your brain and muscles, so to speak.
Speaking of which, muscles, together with the liver, can store 450 grams of carbohydrates in the form of glycogen (equivalent to about 1,800 calories). This energy reserve is quickly available to the body, and the body uses it, for example, during short-term physical exertion.
Omega-3 fatty acids are so healthy Simple sugars consist of only one sugar molecule and are found mainly in fruit and vegetables. © Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock.com
Furthermore, carbohydrates are urgently needed in the body as building blocks and basic substances for the formation of important substances. They are used to produce hormones, amino acids and the DNA educated.
What are carbohydrates made up of?
Carbohydrates are the organic compounds of oxygen (O), hydrogen (H) and carbon (C), which together form a sugar molecule. Depending on how many sugar molecules are strung together, carbohydrates can be divided into single sugars (monosaccharides), double sugars (disaccharides), multiple sugars (oligosaccharides) and multiple sugars (polysaccharides).
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The representatives of simple sugars are dextrose (glucose) and fructose, which are mainly found in fruit and vegetables, and mucilage (galactose), which is found in fermented milk products.
In contrast, the crystal sugar (saccharose), which is common in the household, as well as the milk sugar (lactose) and the malt sugar (maltose) belong to the twofold sugar. Starch is one of the polysaccharides and is found mainly in cereals and potatoes, as well as in muscle fibres.
By the way, dietary fibres are among the indigestible carbohydrates. They cannot be absorbed by the body, which means that they are only utilised by the intestinal bacteria in the large intestine. Among other things, they ensure a well-functioning digestion.
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How are carbohydrates metabolised?
If you consume carbohydrates, for example in the form of a portion of pasta, the carbohydrates are broken down in the intestines into glucose, which is then absorbed by the intestinal mucosa and enters the blood.
Important: Only this simple sugar can be absorbed by your body. If you consume carbohydrates that consist of several simple sugars, the sugar molecules must first be broken down before they can enter the bloodstream. The more complex the carbohydrates, the more complex the digestion process.
Simple carbohydrates, for example from toast, go into the blood very quickly. © Fusionstudio / Shutterstock.com
If glucose is in your bloodstream, the pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which transports the blood sugar further into the cells, where the glucose is needed as energy. By the way, this mechanism does not work in diabetics. Their blood sugar level is permanently elevated and they have to inject themselves with insulin so that the sugar can get from the blood into the cells.
By the way Carbohydrates are already predigested in the mouth during chewing. The enzyme amylase contained in saliva breaks down carbohydrates during prolonged chewing.
What are complex and simple carbohydrates?
Multiple and polysaccharides are also known as the complex, long-chain or “good” carbohydrates. In contrast to monosaccharides and disaccharides, complex carbohydrates keep your body busy digesting them for longer. As a result, the blood sugar level rises more slowly and steadily. Your body is thus constantly supplied with energy and you stay full longer.
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Simple, fast or short-chain carbohydrates are also called the “bad” carbohydrates. They consist mainly of single or double sugars, which enter the bloodstream very quickly and promptly cause a very high blood sugar level. In order to lower this again, the pancreas produces a lot of insulin. Just as quickly as the blood sugar level rises, it then falls again. The result: an irrepressible urge to eat more – the unloved ravenous appetite becomes noticeable.
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Complex carbohydrates from whole grains are digested more slowly and last longer. © ViktorKeryPhotos / Shutterstock.com
To keep your blood sugar level constant, you should therefore consume few fast carbohydrates and more complex, long-chain carbohydrates. Not only will these keep you full for longer, but they also often contain more nutrients.
Which foods contain long-chain carbohydrates?
- Wholemeal bread
- Whole grain pasta
- Natural rice
- Sweet potatoes
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Which foods simply contain carbohydrates?
- sweets, like chocolate, cake, wine gum or ice cream
- white flour, for example in normal pasta or white bread
- White rice
- Fruit juices
- Soft drinks
What is the glycemic index (GI ) or glycemic load (GL )?
Both are an indication of how certain foods affect your blood sugar. The glycemic index indicates how quickly 50 grams of carbohydrates of a particular food are transferred into the blood. Pure glucose, for example, has a value of 100, and the higher the GI, the faster the sugar is in the blood. Foods with a low index, on the other hand, cause the blood sugar to rise slowly.
7 reasons to eat one portion of oatmeal a day Food with high GI cause the blood sugar level to rise rapidly, it drops just as rapidly again. Food with low GI go into the bloodstream more slowly and provide energy for longer. © Maks TRV / Shutterstock.com
The problem with the glycemic index: Portions containing 50 grams of carbohydrates are always compared – the actual portion size is left out. So the watermelon has a GI of 80, white bread ‘only’ of 70, but to reach the comparative value of 50 grams of carbohydrates, you have to eat 1 kilo of watermelon or only 110 grams of white bread. As you can see, it makes little sense to compare these two portions.
For the glycemic load (GL ) the portion size is taken into account. This is therefore more meaningful. However, it is important that the GI and GL only apply to individual foodstuffs. It cannot make any statements for whole meals.
How many carbohydrates per day?
According to the German Society for Nutrition (DGE ) half of your supplied energy should consist of carbohydrates. It is important that more complex and less fast carbohydrates are supplied.
If more carbs are taken in than the body can store or consume, the carbohydrates are converted into fat and stored. Sugar then becomes (body) fat.
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Why carbohydrates for muscle building?
If you want to build muscle, you won’t get far with just training. The important thing is the correct distribution of nutrients in your diet. Muscles need two macronutrients in particular – protein and carbohydrates. Protein is the basic building block of muscles, while carbohydrates are the required energy suppliers.
Your muscles need carbohydrates as an energy source. © Goran Bogicevic / Shutterstock.com
If the body does not get enough carbohydrates, the training effect is missing – your body draws energy not only from fat reserves but also from muscles. So that your body can build up muscles optimally, carbohydrates after training are just as important as sufficient protein.
Why should I avoid carbohydrates in the evening?
The hormone insulin, which is released after a carbohydrate-rich meal, ensures that the sugar from the blood reaches the cells, but at the same time it inhibits the breakdown of fat and even promotes fat storage.
The recommendation not to consume any carbohydrates in the evening is intended to promote fat reduction overnight. However, more important than not eating carbohydrates in the evening is the total calorie intake. If you consume more calories than you consume in the long term, you will gain weight – regardless of whether you skip carbohydrates in the evening or not.
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Carbohydrates are often wrongly demonised. Good, complex carbs, for example from whole grain products or even from legumes, provide energy and important nutrients. Simple carbohydrates from sweets go directly into the bloodstream and cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which then falls just as rapidly. Result: ravenous hunger!