The Ultimate Guide to Carbohydrates  
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Answering your burning questions about one of the most controversial nutrition topics: CARBS  

A Dietitians Ultimate Guide to Carbohydrates

If you’re confused about carbohydrates, you’re not alone. There are many differing opinions and recommendations out there, many suggesting to completely avoid carbs or to cut certain ones out of your diet. In this blog post, we’ll unpack what are carbohydrates, different types of carbohydrates, why we need them, and some examples of carbohydrates. 

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the essential macronutrients that our body primarily uses for energy. Our digestive track breaks down carbohydrates into glucose which is then absorbed into our bloodstream to be used as energy to fuel our brain, muscles, and nervous system 

There are 3 types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fibre. 

Sugars are sweet, short-chain carbohydrate molecules found in foods, built out of glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose. 

Starches are long chains of glucose molecules, which get broken down into glucose in the digestive tract. 

Fibre is an indigestible carbohydrate that acts as food for bacteria in the gut and helps food move through our digestive tract smoothly. 

There are 2 main categories of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Continue reading as we define what these mean 

Simple Carbohydrates 

Your body breaks down simple carbohydrates quickly and as a result, blood sugars rise, and often drop, quickly. You may notice after consuming simple carbs that you have a short burst of energy, followed by a feeling of drowsiness or hunger. Simple carbohydrates are sometimes found in highly processed foods that are lower in fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Sugars are another example of a simple carbohydrate and can be found naturally in food or as added sugars in processed foods.   

Natural occurring sugars are found in foods like milk, fruits, and fruit juice. 

Added sugars are found in sweets, baked goods, ice cream, canned fruit (syrups), soda, condiments, etc.  

Sugar goes by many names. Here are some to look for on the food label: 

  • Agave nectar  
  • Cane syrup or corn syrup  
  • Brown rice syrup 
  • Barley malt  
  • Dextrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, or sucrose 
  • High fructose corn syrup  
  • Maltodextrins  
  • Honey or maple syrup 
  • Molasses  
  • Sugar  

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbs are less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar because they often contain fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals and take longer for our bodies to digest. They often have undergone minimal or no processing and provide longer-lasting fullness and energy.  

Some examples of complex carbohydrates are:

  • Whole grain products
  • Legumes
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Couscous
  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Vegetables

Wondering how to incorporate these? Search our blog for weekly recipes that include these.  

examples of complex carbohydrates

Why Do We Need Carbohydrates? 

Carbs are our body’s main source of energy or what we like to refer to as the “gasoline” for our muscles and brain. Our brains cannot store glucose and therefore need a constant supply otherwise you may experience fatigue, brain fog, anxiousness, mood swings, have difficulty concentrating, or become obsessive about food. 

In addition to this, our muscles need carbs for physical activity. The more active you are, the more carbs you need otherwise you may experience muscle fatigue or poor sports performance.  

How Many Carbohydrates Do We Need? 

Our brain itself requires at least 130 grams of carbohydrates per day regardless of age, gender, or activity level. This is the amount in a few slices of bread, a cup of rice, and a few pieces of fruit. As activity levels increase, so does the need for more carbs.  

Nutrition research suggests that 45-65% of total calories should come from carbohydrates. For the average adult female, this is anywhere between 180-390g of carb per day, and for the average adult male, approximately 225-488g of carb per day.  

Are Carbs Bad? Should I Avoid Them?  

This is a question I often get asked, so if you have been told this or are confused about the necessity of carbs, you’re not alone. If you have read this far, my hope is that you’ve gained a foundational understanding of why carbs are NOT bad and the reason behind why they should be included daily as part of a balanced diet.  

Our bodies are made to enjoy carbs and use them to fuel our brain and daily activities. Without them, you may experience a wide range of symptoms such as drowsiness, brain fog, or what many refer to as “hanger” (irritability + hunger combined – this is my personal telltale sign and why I almost always have a snack stashed nearby at all times).  

Okay, so we’ve established carbs are important, but the next most common question I get asked about carbs is: 

What Type of Carbs Are Best?

No foods are morally good or bad, but we do know that they can differ nutritionally.  

Complex carbs, as mentioned above, contain a greater variety of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fibre, and choosing them most often at meals and snacks can support general well-being and provide more long-term energy and fullness during the day. However, if you’re looking for a quick burst of energy during an intense workout or physical activity, simple carbs may be the more fitting choice.  

For most people, following the balanced plate approach can help ensure you’re meeting your carbohydrate needs as well as your other macronutrients. The balanced plate suggests that ½ your plate is filled with vegetables and fruit, ¼ of your plate grains/starches (with ideally 50% of grains being whole grains), and ¼ of your plate protein foods.  

Building balanced meals and snacks

Apart from fuelling our bodies, we know we also choose foods for pure enjoyment, fun, and social reasons, so if you’re really just feeling an ice cream on a hot summer’s day or a scone and coffee when hanging out with a friend, know that these are completely valid reasons to choose this type of carbohydrate. 

Healthy, balanced eating is not solely the type of nutrients we’re putting in our body but also honouring what foods bring us joy, feel best in our body, and align with our lifestyle and values.

What About Low-Carb Diets?

Low-carb diets, like the keto diet, have been in and out of popularity for years, often for their weight loss results. Different eating patterns work for different people, however, be aware that 1 g carb stores 3 g water in the body therefore if following a low-carb diet, you will lose water weight.  The only way to lose true body weight is through a caloric deficit in general by eating less of either carbs, protein, OR fat calories.  

If you follow a low-carb diet but just swap the reduced carbohydrate calories for fat and protein calories, you won’t lose true weight, just fluid weight. For a more detailed look at the keto diet, check out our other blog post, Dietitian Advice: Detoxes, Cleanses, and the Keto Diet.  

Looking for further support in making lifestyle changes? We can help!  

Unsure where to start or feeling stuck on the way? Get connected with one of our qualified Registered Dietitians who can support you on your journey.

Our team of experienced Dietitians are passionate about coming alongside you and finding personalized solutions to your nutrition challenges.

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