The Functions of Carbohydrates and Why They’re Vital To Your Health

Function of Carbohydrates
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Carbohydrates are one of the major food groups that our bodies need to function properly and stay healthy. The function of carbohydrates is to act as a fuel source to give your cells, organs, and tissues energy. All types of carbohydrates, whether they are simple carbs or complex carbohydrates are turned into sugar (glucose) and used by the body.

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Some of the best and healthiest sources of carbohydrates are whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes. These complex carbs are healthier because they provide the body with a slow release of sugars and prevent sharp spikes in blood sugar levels. In fact, some people are surprised to find out that eating healthy carbs can actually help lose weight. Simple carbohydrate foods provide a quick release of energy and these are found in white bread, cakes, cookies, and processed food. These types of simple carbs should be consumed in limited amounts.

There is much discussion about the role of carbohydrates in weight gain and increased blood sugar levels. In this article, you will find out the true function of carbohydrates and why carbs are important in body functions. You will also learn why some forms of carbohydrates should be limited to help keep you fit and healthy.

Why the Body Needs Carbohydrates to Function

Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are classed as macronutrients and together they form a large part of our diet. Most foods contain various proportions of these macronutrients. When it comes to the function of carbohydrates in our diet, dietitian Sian Porter on NHS.uk says that not all carbs are the same. For a healthy diet, it’s important to know the type, quality, and quantity of carbohydrates in the foods we consume.1

There are three main types of carbohydrates:

1. Sugar. This is the simplest type of carbohydrate and is quickly used by the body as an energy source. Sugar is found in many fruits, vegetables, and milk products. It is also extracted from sugar beet and sugar cane and made into table sugar.

2. Starch. Starch is a complex carbohydrate. This means that the sugar molecules are bound together in long chains and take more time for the body to use them. Starch is found in grains, peas, beans, and vegetables.

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3. Fiber. Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. The body needs these complex carbs to maintain a healthy digestive system. It also helps you feel fuller for longer.

Carbs and glycemic index (GI)

When searching online for the role carbohydrates play in diet or what a “low carb diet” is, you may come across the term glycemic index (GI). Doctors at the Mayo Clinic say that this signifies the potential the carbohydrate has to raise your blood sugar (glucose) levels.2 Most complex carbohydrates have a low GI, and you can find more information about it in my article on how to reduce your glycemic index (GI) and lose weight.

The Essential Functions of Carbohydrates

There are many important functions of carbohydrates in the body. Carbs not only give you energy, but they also help to reduce the risk of disease, improve your immune system, assist the body in absorbing protein, and help to improve digestion function.

Carbohydrates provide the body with energy

The body needs carbs to fulfill its energy needs. The sugars and starches from food metabolize in the body to be used as a source of energy.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and then enter your bloodstream. The glucose is then transported around your body to give energy to various organs including your brain. Each person has his or her individual carbohydrate need. If your carbohydrate intake is greater that your energy needs, your body then stores this as glycogen in your liver and muscles.3

Doctors from the NHS.uk say that if you have too much glycogen than your body can use, it converts this into fat.1

Carbohydrates increase protein absorption in the body

Having the right balance of carbs is important for the body because it helps the body to use protein and fat for purposes other than for fuel. Protein is broken down into amino acids which are needed for growth, making hormones, keeping muscles strong, and helping the body to repair cells.

According to the American Diabetes Association, if all 3 nutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fat – are in balance in your diet, the carbohydrates and fat will be used primarily for energy. This helps to keep your body strong and prevent fatigue. If you don’t have enough carbohydrates, your body will use protein or fat as an energy source.4

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So, if you decide to reduce the number of carbohydrates in your diet, it’s important to consume more protein so that your body doesn’t lack the important amino acids it needs to function properly.

Carbs reduce the risk of disease

Good, healthy carbohydrates provide an essential function in helping to reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases. For example, foods containing fiber help to keep your digestive system working properly and prevent constipation.

Studies into the benefits of a diet rich in fiber have shown that fiber can help reduce “bad” cholesterol in your body. The fiber helps to prevent cholesterol from being absorbed into your bloodstream. The result is that overall cholesterol levels are reduced and this can reduce your risk of heart and cardiovascular disease.5

Complex carbs also help boost the function of natural killer cells in the body. These are an important factor in keeping a healthy immune system to prevent from becoming ill and developing various diseases.6

Complex carbohydrates improve digestion

The fiber content in many complex carbohydrates doesn’t just keep your bowels working properly. Healthy carbs help the body regulate its whole gastrointestinal function.

The Journal of Nutrition published information showing that complex carbohydrates help to increase stool weight and keep a healthy microflora in the gut. This helps to boost your body’s digestive health.7 On the other hand, studies have shown that simple carbohydrates are poorly absorbed in the gut and can increase the amount of gas, bloating, and cause other bowel disorders.8

If you suffer from gas, bloating, and stomach pain after eating, you can try the low FODMAP diet. This diet consists of foods that are easily absorbed in your digestive system and prevent gas, bloating, and abdominal pain. Please read this article for more information on the low FODMAP and how it can prevent many digestion issues.

Carbohydrates help control weight

Carbs tend to get talked about in a bad light when it comes to weight loss. But, just as there are good fats and bad fats, so there are carbs that benefit the body and help with weight control and carbohydrates that can do the opposite if you consume too much of them.

However, Dr. Jack Alhadeff on WebMD says that there isn’t such a thing as “good” carbs and “bad” carbs. For example, if you need energy for physical activity, then simple carbohydrates like white bread and pasta are ideal food choices. However, if you need to lose weight, then you should avoid simple carbohydrates and choose high-fiber carbohydrate options. These can help you to feel fuller for longer and prevent overeating.9

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When it comes to weight loss, many people have actually found that a low-carb diet can be beneficial in shedding extra pounds. Diets low in carbohydrates are high in protein-rich foods. This forces your body to use fat for energy and thus help you lose weight. You can find out more information on the benefits of low-carb diets on this website.

Carbs make food tastier

Carbs help improve the flavor of many foods. Most of us know that foods that contain simple carbohydrates are tasty and hard to resist. We also know that eating too much sugary foods is bad for our general health. However, scientists have found that most of us can taste the starchy carbohydrates in food. They have called this our sixth taste.

It seems that it’s not just the simple carbohydrates in the form of sugar that excites our taste buds, but also the complex carbs in the form of starches.10

The Healthiest Carbohydrates for your Body

For your body to function properly and maintain good health, it’s important to include more healthy, fiber-rich carbs in your diet.

Elaine Magee, who has written 26 books on health and nutrition, says that the right type of carbohydrates can boost your health. These are the types of complex carbohydrates that get absorbed slowly into your body. She says that foods like oats, beans, and some fruits have health benefits for your heart. It’s also important to limit the consumption of processed foods that have added sugars, like fructose corn syrup, as these can spike insulin levels.11

Various studies have shown that foods containing complex carbs have a positive role in keeping the body healthy. For example, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating nuts and legumes reduced the risk of heart disease.12 Other studies have shown that a diet high in whole grains, fruit and vegetables helps to reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases.13, 14 Consuming fruit and vegetables regularly in your diet may also help prevent the onset of diabetes.15

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So, carbohydrates have an important function in your body. All carbohydrates – simple and complex carbs – are converted into sugar and used as fuel for your body. The fiber in many complex carbohydrates has an important role in keeping your digestive system functioning properly and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Tips for Adding Healthy Carbohydrates to Your Diet

The Harvard School of Public Health published 5 tips for adding healthy carbohydrates to your diet:17

1. Start the day with whole grains. For example, steel cut or old fashioned oats rather than instant oatmeal, or a cereal that lists a whole grain first on the ingredient list and is low in sugar.

2. Use whole grain breads. Read the product label and look for bread that lists as the first ingredient whole wheat, whole rye, or some other whole grain, or one that is made with only whole grains, such as 100% whole wheat bread.

3. Also look beyond the bread Aisle. As bread often contains hidden ingredients such as sodium, you can try instead of bread a whole grain in salad form such as brown rice or quinoa.

4. Choose whole fruit instead of juice. One orange contains twice the amount of fiber and half the amount of sugar as a 12-ounce (350ml) glass of orange juice.

5. Consume more beans instead of potatoes. Since the carbohydrates in potatoes are digested rapidly, causing blood sugar and insulin to rise and fall quickly, choose beans that are an excellent source of slowly digested carbohydrates. Beans and other legumes also provide a good amount of protein.

Carbohydrates and Diabetes – Carbohydrate Counting

The American Diabetes Association mentions carbohydrate counting as a meal planning technique for managing blood glucose levels of diabetic people. The amount of carbohydrates a diabetic person needs to eat is very individual and depends on many things, including how active the person is and what, if any, medicines he takes. While some people are more active and can eat more carbohydrates, others may need to have less carbohydrates to keep their blood glucose in control.16

If you suffer from diabetes, talk to your health care provider to figure out the right amount of carbohydrates for you and the portion size to match.

Whole Grains and Gluten

Many common whole-grain foods, such as breads, cereals and pasta, contain gluten which is a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

If you suffer from gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease and follow a gluten-free diet, you can still consume gluten-free whole grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff, buckwheat, oats, brown rice, wild rice and sorghum.18

Read my other related articles:
1. 10 Signs You Are Eating Too Much Sugar
2. 6 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Quit Sugar
3. How to Reduce Your Glycemic Index (GI) and Lose Weight
4. Low Carb Diets – What You Need to Know
Article Sources:

  1. NHS. The truth about carbs.
  2. MayoClinic. Carbohydrates.
  3. Am J Clin Nutr. 1994 Mar;59(3 Suppl):682S-685S.
  4. DiabetesForecast. How the body uses carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
  5. Am J Clin Nutr. January 1999 vol. 69 no. 1 30-42.
  6. Glycobiology. 1991 Sep;1(4):321-8.
  7. J Nutr. 1994 Sep;124(9 Suppl):1747S-1753S
  8. Am J Gastroenterol. 2013 May;108(5):707-17
  9. WebMD. Carbs for weight loss?
  10. Senses (2016) 41 (9): 755-762.
  11. WebMD. Good carbs, bad carbs.
  12. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jul;100(1):278-88.
  13. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Mar;175(3):373-84.
  14. Nutr. October 2006 vol. 136 no. 10 2588-2593.
  15. Prev Med. January 2001, vol. 31 no. 1 33-39.
  16. Carbohydrate Counting. American Diabetes Association.
  17. Carbohydrates. Harvard School of Public Health.
  18. Are Gluten-Free Grains on Your Plate?. Celiac Support Association
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