The key to a healthy and strong body is a combination of a positive mindset, regular workouts and making sure the body receives all the nutrients it needs to maintain a balance, inside and out. Food can influence the way one sees the world, and that is why what one eats should be nourishing. There are six basic types of nutrients, each fulfilling a different role in the structure of the human body:

  • carbohydrates
  • proteins
  • fats
  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • water

Out of these types, the most important source of energy for us is constituted by carbohydrates that, once in the digestive system, are turned into glucose, that is blood sugar, and used to help the chemical processes take place.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are the body’s energy plant and, by providing the organism with glucose, they sustain its proper functioning, whether we talk about physical movement or mental effort. A carbohydrate is a molecule consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and is synonymous with the term of “saccharide”, a class that includes sugars, starch, and cellulose.

Monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides

There are two main types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. The most important difference between the simple and complex ones is given by the length of time in which a food containing this nutrient is absorbed by the body to be used afterward as a means to produce and release energy.

In the case of simple carbohydrates, there is no need for the stomach to digest them, as they are absorbed in a fast rate and used immediately. Because of their low nutritional value, an excess can quickly lead to a considerable increase in weight. The more sugar and less fiber (responsible for the manner in which the body retains the sugar) it contains, the more toxic they are to the cells.

There are two branches of simple carbohydrates, and these are the monosaccharides and disaccharides.

Monosaccharides are the simplest forms of carbohydrates, in that they cannot break into smaller units, as well as the simplest form of sugar, containing in their structure some carbons that range between three and seven. Because they are the plainest unit, together they can create another type of simple carbohydrates, called disaccharides and also a complex type of carbs, the polysaccharides.[1]

The most important monosaccharides are: glucose( or blood sugar, the most essential simple sugar absorbed by the body when in need of energy, obtained as a result of a reaction of oxidation), galactose (a milk sugar, synthesized from glucose, which usually enters the liver where it is converted to glucose in order to produce energy) and fructose (the sugar found in fruits).

The second type of simple carbohydrates is called disaccharide and is formed when two monosaccharides undergo a process named “the condensation reaction,” that is, a chemical action with the help of which two functional groups combine to give birth to a bigger group.

The most common types of disaccharides are lactose (a sugar found in milk), maltose (found in germinating grain, starch or corn syrup, as the result of two combined glucose units; due to the fact that it is not very sweet, maltose is not used in the food industry as a sweetener, but it is indispensable in the production of beer), and sucrose( naturally found in plants such as sugarcane and sugar beets, although it can also be obtained in a laboratory).[2]

Simple carbohydrates are found in those foods that are usually the cheapest and most common, as well as the most banned by specialists for their negative influence, mainly because, by being absorbed in a fast rate, in situations when the body cannot use them as energy, they are stored as fat, causing obesity in most of the cases.

It is recommended that one should eliminate the following foods, if not totally then at least partially, from one’s diet: soda, candies, chips, sugar, artificial syrups, white bread and pasta, pastry, desserts and limit the consumption of potatoes that contain complex carbohydrates, but are absorbed as fast as the simple ones.

The complex carbohydrates are called polysaccharides, and, as the name suggests it, they are the result of a combination of multiple units of monosaccharides (more than ten units). Because of their structure, that is more complicated than that of monosaccharides and disaccharides; they can provide a constant level of energy for longer periods of time, as they get absorbed by the digestive system slower.

They are considered to be healthier than the simple carbohydrates, as their ability to gradually release energy helps one control the appetite easier.

Starch is produced by green plants during the process of photosynthesis and comes as a result of an excessive production of glucose. It is found in various foods such as starchy vegetables( corn, beans, potatoes), lentils or grains. The grains have a nutritious value as well, as each part of the grain contains different vitamins and minerals, beneficial for one’s health( fibers, vitamins B and E or fatty acids).

The most well-known type of commercial starch is that made from corn and is obtained by mixing the crushed seeds that contain the starch with water. The outcome is an ingredient that can thicken liquid foods such as soups or sauces.[3]

Glycogen is a polysaccharide that is stored in the liver, responsible for controlling the level of sugar in the blood, and muscles, as they need energy stored inside them to perform different tasks. It is the main form of carbohydrate storage in animals, as it releases a certain quantity of energy faster than the fat deposits do it, and can convert to glucose when needed.

Cellulose is a polysaccharide that represents the main component of plant cell walls and offers them great strength in doing so. It is found in nature in the trunks of trees, cotton or hemp.

Another type of complex carbohydrate is the oligosaccharide, composed of three to ten monosaccharide units. The main difference between oligosaccharides and polysaccharides is that while the latter can be broken down by the digestive system, the former cannot.

Therefore, they reach the large intestine, where the bacteria can absorb the nutrients to provide energy. That is why the oligosaccharides are also called prebiotics, because of the way the intestinal flora benefits of this process. It is known that a healthy colon does not allow the existence of oxygen inside it, as many of the beneficial bacteria are anaerobic. Thus, the consumption of foods that contain this kind of carbohydrate is not only helpful but also recommended. Some foods that contain oligosaccharide are beans, peas, cabbage, onion, Jerusalem artichoke and even the human breast milk.[4]

It is considered by specialists that carbohydrates can, as well, be divided into two groups that are equally important, but have opposite influences: good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates.

This distinction is based on the fact that, while the good ones contain fibers, minerals, and vitamins, the other ones have a rather negative impact on one’s health.

Let us take the case of cookies, chips, and doughnuts that contain such a high quantity of sugar, that the digestive system and the entire body are unable to process all of it in a short period, as the release of sugar in the blood is immediate. The so-called bad carbohydrates, combined with a lack of sustained physical activity, are the number one cause of obesity.

Good carbohydrates are moderate in calories, high in fibers, beneficial for the digestion, low in saturated fats and sodium, and extremely low in cholesterol. Bad carbs are high in calories and refined grains, lack a lot of nutrients and are high in sodium and saturated fats. They delay the digestion, cause weight gain and influence the occurrence of heart diseases, diabetes or even cancer.

The importance of carbohydrates for the health

The consumption of foods that contain carbohydrates is crucial when leading a healthy lifestyle, and it is nearly impossible not to use them, as a lack of these nutrients would cause all sorts of damages to the body and mind as well. Their primary role is to provide the body the energy it needs for the chemical processes inside it to take place in a peaceful and natural manner. Because they are not complete when it comes to the nutritional value, the body needs, as well, fats, vitamins, minerals and proteins. They are essential for the health of the intestines, as some types of carbohydrates are known to be absorbed only at the level of the large intestine, releasing in that later stage beneficial bacteria that support the wellbeing of the intestinal flora.

The carbohydrates are also necessary for the functioning of the internal organs and the central nervous system, mainly because this last one needs glucose, a monosaccharide that can stabilize the level of sugar in the blood. They can also influence in a positive way a woman’s fertility, help maintains a healthy immune system and contains vitamins and antioxidants that can delay the process of aging.

Carbohydrate deficiency

Nowadays, people feel more and more pressured to look a certain way and be as thin as possible because of the contemporary beauty standards. That is why a multitude of dietary plans fill the pages of magazines all over the world, some so-called specialists promote them in the media, and people tend to talk, more often than not they unaware of a possible negative outcome, of all sorts of new ways of losing weight more rapidly.

Currently, there are diets through which one can reduce the consumption of foods containing carbohydrates to a minimum, and people, not knowing the effects and desperate to lose weight, remove from their body an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.

Carbohydrates are found in almost every food in different quantities, except for the animal products that are low in carbohydrates and richer in proteins. Once ingested, the carbohydrates are broken down by the digestive system and absorbed in the intestines. The monosaccharides, once they are turned into glucose( sugar) and reach the blood stream, are used to produce energy.

Not all glucose has that purpose, as a certain amount is redirected towards the liver that converts it into glycogen. Every time the body needs a new dose of energy, the glycogen turns into glucose, and that is why a deprivation of this essential substance leads to health issues. When the body no longer benefits from the use of glucose, symptoms such as tremors, fatigue, delirium and even loss of muscle tissue appear.

Therefore, it is good to know the consequences of a diet before starting one, because, in most of the cases, the term of “diet” is but a decent way of naming the phenomenon of starvation. If the body is subjected to a carbohydrate deficiency for a long period, it enters a metabolic state named Ketosis in which the energy comes from ketone bodies rather than glucose, as it typically happens.

The ketone bodies are also produced by the liver, only that, in contrast to the blood sugar that comes from the carbohydrates, they are the result of fatty acids. In these situations, the body becomes tired because the source of glucose is no longer the glycogen, but non-carbohydrates.

An excess of ketone leads to loss of water, glycogen from the liver(after only twenty-four hours), and even muscle tissues. That is why, when one follows an extreme diet, the weight loss is visible in the beginning, mainly because the body is depleted by its water and glycogen supplies, so when one goes back to the old habits, there is a sudden weight gain.

The Glycemic Index and Diabetes

The glycemic index measures the way in which a food containing carbohydrates raises the level of sugar in the blood. In other words, there are high glycemic index carbs, that enter the bloodstream directly, without the need to go through a process of digestion and absorption, and low glycemic index carbohydrates, that take longer to be broken down. It is considered that the consumption of foods with a low glycemic index is healthier, as the energy release is gradual and allows one to control the body weight easier.

The high glycemic index carbohydrates, combined with a sedentary lifestyle and a negative mindset lead, in many cases, to diabetes. The diabetes is a disease that appears as a consequence of significant fluctuations in the glucose and insulin levels in the body. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas to balance the sugar in the blood, bringing it down. The pancreas also releases glucagon, a hormone that can raise the level of sugar in the blood.

When the body ingests large amounts of simple carbohydrates repeatedly, the cells eventually get used to the normal process of insulin and glucagon production, and can become immune to the regular dose. The pancreas is forced to produce insulin in larger quantities until it reaches a point when the system gives in. The state is named “insulin resistance”, and causes high blood pressure, high levels of fat in the bloodstream, and ultimately leads to diabetes.

It is recommended that one should include in the diet low glycemic index foods rather than high glycemic index ones, because of their many positive aspects such as keeping a reasonable level of cholesterol, lowering the risks of heart diseases and diabetes, helping one lose weight in a healthy manner. Low glycemic index foods include oatmeal, muesli, corn, peas, lentils, fruits and non-starchy vegetables. The high glycemic index foods are usually processed foods such as white bread, instant oatmeal, white rice, but also fruits( melons and pineapple) and starchy vegetables.

Today’s society offers one a wide range of foods through which one can maintain a healthy body, as long as there is moderation. The replacement of white bread with whole grain bread, of potatoes with beans and chickpeas, and eating fruits for dessert instead of cookies is the first step in changing one’s lifestyle. It is necessary that people should be provided with a proper education when it comes to healthy eating habits. A well-proportioned diet consisting of foods that contain carbohydrates, as well as proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals are considered to be the ideal choice when facing with the usual sweet tooth.[5]