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What Are Carbohydrates?

Low carbohydrate diets have gained a lot of publicity in recent years and the debate on whether they are good for you or not goes on. But what are carbohydrates or 'carbs'?  Why has the concern over carbohydrate foods risen in recent years?  To understand what carbohydrates are and how they work, you need to know a little basic chemistry first.

The function of carbs in your body is to provide the main source of energy for the body. Your body either uses the carbohydrates immediately or your body can convert them into fat to store and use later. Carbohydrates or saccharides are sugars and starches which provide energy for humans and animals. There are two types of carbohydrates, simple or monosaccharides and complex, or polysaccharides.

Simple carbohydrates are found in foods such as fruits and dairy and are more easily digested by the body. Because of the way our food is processed now, they are also often found in refined foods such as white sugar, pastas and white bread.

Complex carbohydrates on the other hand, take longer to digest and are mainly found in vegetables, whole grain breads and pastas, brown rice and legumes. The refining processes adopted today removes some of the grain's fibre and nutrients. Therefore, eating a bowl of whole grain cereal such as low carb oatmeal will not only fill you up for longer but give you longer lasting energy than a bowl of sugary cereal due to the way the body uses and processes the carbohydrates.

Once you have eaten carbs in food, it is the job of the liver to digest carbs by breaking them down into simple sugars or glucose. This in turn stimulates the production of insulin in the pancreas. The function of insulin is to convert this sugar into energy by getting it into the body's blood cells. Simple and complex carbohydrates affect the production of insulin in different ways.

When digesting simple carbohydrates, insulin levels rise faster and 'spike' faster and the carbs are used up faster for energy. This is why when you eat a sugary sweet or snack to quickly satisfy hunger or for a quick energy burst, you find that energy levels crash soon after when the sugar 'high' ends. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, this results in a longer lasting period of energy and importantly less of an insulin reaction in the body.

If the body produces too much glucose, it will be stored in the liver and the muscle cells as glycogen. This is stored until the body next needs a burst of energy. Any glycogen that isn't stored in the liver or cells is stored in the body as fat. The body uses the immediate stores of glycogen for short term energy needs. However, this is where the problem of being over-weight or developing diabetes can occur. If too much fat is stored and not used as energy, health problems may occur. Only when exercise or workouts are under-taken will the reserves of fat be used as energy.

The recommended carbohydrate intake for an adult on a daily basis varies from one organisation to another. The World Health Organisation recommends 55-75% of dietary energy should come from carbohydrates. Only 10% should come from simple carbs. While the Institute of Medicine recommends 40-65%.

However, no one should have a carb free diet. The body needs a certain amount of carbs to function properly. If insufficient carbs are consumed it may result in health problems such as fatigue, poor mental capacity and muscle cramps. Although carbohydrates are an important part of a persons diet, as a short term measure, the body can produce energy from fat and proteins alone. Hence the rise in very low carb diets and the consumption of foods low in carbs. It is important to remember that low-carb does not mean no-carb. Eating the right types of carbs is important if dieting for a healthy weight loss.  Low Carb eBooks

 Carbohydrate List