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Carbohydrates: what are they exactly?

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 440 views

Carbohydrates are the most important macronutrient when it comes to quickly available and efficient energy production for our body. They are found in various forms in many foods. Some carbohydrates are directly available, while other variants must first be broken down by the body. Read here why carbohydrates are such a good source of energy and which ones exist.

What are carbohydrates?

From a chemical point of view, carbohydrates (saccharides) are sugars. They consist of a compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (=hydrates). You can see whether a substance is a carbohydrate if you take a closer look at the Latin name: If there is an “ose” at the end, it is a sugar, for example lactose, maltose or sucrose.

Plants can produce sugars themselves with the help of photosynthesis. For example, they incorporate them into their cell walls in the form of cellulose or store them in the form of starch.

People usually get their carbohydrate needs from diet. Carbohydrates enter the blood via the intestines. In order for the human cells to be able to access the carbohydrates floating in the blood as an energy source, they need insulin. This hormone is made in the pancreas.

Carbohydrates that the organism does not burn immediately are stored in the form of glycogen in the liver (2/3) and muscles (1/3).

Basically, depending on the number of sugar building blocks and consequently the length of the sugar chains, a distinction is made between the following groups:

Simple sugars (monosaccharides)

A carbohydrate made up of a single sugar molecule is called a simple sugar or monosaccharide. There are three nutritionally relevant monosaccharides:

  • Glucose (also called dextrose ), found in honey or fruit, for example
  • Fructose (fruit sugar) is also found in honey or fruit
  • Galactose , part of milk sugar released during digestion.

Simple sugars go almost directly from food into the organism, where they are quickly available as energy. However, this also means that they increase the blood sugar level rapidly, but let it fall just as quickly. Monosaccharides are good when you need to perform short term and fast.

Simple sugars are an important source of energy for the body. For example, glucose is necessary for the brain , red blood cells, and kidney cortex to function.

Double sugars (disaccharides)

If two simple sugars are connected to each other, we are talking about double sugars. Carbohydrates with two sugar molecules include, for example, milk sugar (lactose) or granulated sugar (sucrose), as used in baking.

The usual household sugar is such a disaccharide. Disaccharides are also known as short-chain carbohydrates.

Multiple sugars (oligosaccharides and polysaccharides)

Multiple sugars are also known as long-chain carbohydrates. They have at least three sugar molecules attached to each other. Depending on the definition, oligosaccharides are compounds with three to ten sugar molecules. They taste sweet.

Legumes such as peas or beans, for example, contain oligosaccharides. Its components raffinose, stachyrose and verbascose are not digested in the upper intestinal tract but must be broken down by bacteria in the large intestine. This causes the flatulence typical of legumes.

If more than ten sugars are connected, we are talking about polysaccharides. Their chemical properties are slightly different – for example, the long carbohydrate chain is no longer as soluble in water and no longer tastes sweet.

Starch as found in potatoes (60 percent starch) or cereals (75 percent starch) is one of the polysaccharides. It is the most important dietary carbohydrate. Since starch is rarely consumed in its pure form, starchy foods not only provide us with energy, but also with nutrients and filling fiber.

The body must first break down these polysaccharides before it can use the sugar as an energy source. This means: The blood sugar rises slowly, falls slowly and there are no food cravings. This type of carbohydrate is therefore called “good”.

However, there are also carbohydrates that humans cannot use for themselves – these include, for example, the so-called cellulose. The main building block of plant cell walls. Nevertheless, these carbohydrates, also known as roughage, are an important part of the diet as swelling and bulking agents.

What do carbohydrates do

On average, 99 percent of carbohydrates are absorbed by the body. They cause blood sugar levels to rise. Depending on the type, this happens at different speeds, since the body can only absorb monosaccharides and therefore has to “rebuild” longer-chain variants first.

Carbohydrates have different functions in the body: as a source of energy, as a component of blood group substances and anticoagulant substances, in the body’s defense system and they have a protective function in connective tissue and bones. Dietary fibers such as the polysaccharide cellulose are also important for metabolism and digestion.

Good and bad carbohydrates

There is a colloquial distinction between good and bad carbohydrates.

The good carbohydrates cause the blood sugar level to rise and fall slowly. In this way, they give the body energy and keep you full for a long time – which is why good carbohydrates are often recommended for diets.

This includes:

  • Legumes (lentils, beans)
  • green vegetables
  • Salat

On the other hand, it is rather bad for the body if carbohydrates in the form of single and double sugars (mono-, disaccharides) are found in food. The problem: If you eat the short-chain carbohydrates, it leads to a rapid rise in blood sugar levels and a rapid increase in performance. But just as quickly it sinks again, often combined with food cravings.

The bad carbs are in foods like

  • White bread
  • sweets
  • sweet fruits like bananas, grapes or pineapples

The article Good carbohydrates explains why carbohydrates are not just  carbohydrates .

How Many Carbs a Day Should I Eat?

The German Society for Nutrition (DGE) recommends that healthy adults consume at least 50 percent of their daily energy intake in the form of carbohydrates.

However, it is important that you primarily consume complex carbohydrates, such as those found in cereals, cereal products, vegetables, fruit, legumes and potatoes.

Read  more about the amount of carbohydrates you need to take in to stay healthy and fit and what your energy needs depend on in the Carbohydrate requirement article.

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