In the past few articles in this series, we’ve discussed carbohydrates, covering the basics as well as simple sugars and the dangers of artificial sweeteners. In this edition of Ultimate Guide to Nutrients, we’ll cover complex carbohydrates: what they are and why you need them.
As a refresher, carbohydrates are broken down into simple and complex.
See the chart below for the break down.
A few weeks ago, we covered the simple sugars: monosaccharides and disaccharides. Today, we will cover complex carbohydrates, which include oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.
COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES-consist of oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. This is the group of foods from which we should be eating.
Here is the complex carbohydrate breakdown:
- Oligosaccharides-3 – 10 sugar molecules. Oligosaccharides are found in many foods, such as lentils, beans, and peas. The human body lacks the enzyme necessary to digest oligosaccharides. Instead, they are broken down by the friendly bacteria in our large intestine, and therefore VERY important, because these little friends help keep our digestive system and the rest of our body, healthy and happy. One side effect of this process is bloating, cramps and gas. (Like when you eat a bowl of chili or beans…this is why!) the two most common oligosaccharides are:
- Polysaccharides– more than 10 sugar molecules.
- Glycogen-this is the storage form of sugar in the body, primarily found in the liver and muscles.
- Starch- found in wheat, corn, squash, oats, grains, potatoes, yams, etc.
- Dietary fiber- found in plants, not digested or absorbed by the body. Instead it is partially broken down by friendly gut bacteria and helps to “clean” the digestive tract.
Are carbohydrates bad?
Carbohydrates have become the new “bad guy” in the nutrition world. For decades, fat was the “bad guy”. Food companies quickly picked up on this trend, producing “low-fat” and “non-fat” products. What was the result of this removing fat from the daily diet? Here are some statistics. (1)
- In the 1950’s, approximately 10% of the United States was classified as “obese”.
- In 2012, the current obesity rate in the United States is 35%.
- As a result of the “low-fat” or “no-fat” trend, the obesity rate has tripled in 6 decades.
What are the reasons for this weight problem? Well, entire books have been written about this very topic. Suffice it to say there are a few basic reasons: (1)
- Restaurant portion sizes increased 23%
- Increased screen time on televisions and computers
- The main reason-sugar-added to everything. In order to add flavor to the low-fat/no-fat products, manufacturers added sugar to the products. As a result, you are hard pressed to find a pre-packaged food product with out added sugar.
You may be asking what these fat facts have to do with the current low carb trend. Well, after decades of eating a low fat/high carb diet, it has been discovered that fructose destroys the liver, causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (AKA: non-alcohol cirrhosis). (2) This is because fructose serves no purpose and is not used anywhere in the body. As a result, it must be processed and filtered by the liver, which causes damage.
It has also been found that fructose contributes to the following conditions: (3)
- elevates triglycerides
- increases harmful LDL (so-called bad cholesterol)
- promotes the buildup of fat around organs (visceral fat)
- increases blood pressure
- makes tissues insulin-resistant, a precursor to diabetes
- increases the production of free radicals, energetic compounds that can damage DNA and cells.
So, as a society, we have decided not to just demonize simple sugars, but all carbohydrates. This has resulted in a complete flip from low-fat/high-carbohydrate to high-fat/low-carbohydrate diets, which can be just as dangerous, for different reasons.
While it is true that all carbohydrates inevitably breakdown to simple sugars within the body, at the end of the day, your body still needs carbohydrates. As long as you stay away from simple sugars and eat complex carbohydrates, from whole food sources, you will be fine.
So, what exactly do complex carbohydrates do for the body? (4)
- The main source of energy-This is immediate energy-after filtering out the fiber, which is built in to complex carbohydrates. Eating complex carbs early in the day will provide energy to fuel your activity
- Aid digestion– The fiber in the carbohydrates helps with digestion and keeps you “regular”. We’ll talk more about fiber in the next article, but, without carbs, it’s difficult to get enough fiber.
- Boost metabolism– Because they provide energy, carbohydrates are important to improve metabolism.
- Aid in sleep– Some complex carbs, such as oatmeal and sweet potatoes, contain large amounts of Trytophan, which relaxes the body and aids in sleep. Oatmeal also helps the body produce melatonin, which regulates sleep.
- Filled with Fiber– Fiber regulates your digestion and keeps you full for extended periods of time. All whole food complex carbohydrates are great sources of fiber.
- Improved nervous system– It’s why we call it “comfort food”! Complex carbohydrates help the body to relax and feel less nervous. These complex carbs help the body produce enzymes which bring balance to the body.
- Optimal brain function– Your brain needs carbs. Complex carbs can aid in mental focus, as well as relieve problems such as depression, and brain fog.
How many carbohydrates should you eat?
Well, that’s the million dollar question isn’t it. Remember-I advocate biochemical individuality. Some people can get by with 50 or 75 grams per day, while others need significantly more. However, Dr. Catherine Shanahan, in her book Deep Nutrition recommends 100 grams per day, for anyone trying to lose weight. (6)
So is there such a thing as good carbs and bad carbs….ABSOLUTELY YES! Stay away from processed forms of carbohydrates. Eat whole food, complex carbohydrates.
The ten best sources of complex carbohydrates: (5)
- Sweet potatoes
- whole fruit
- Ancient grains-such as millet, amaranth and buckwheat
- Rice-Yes, brown rice, but venture out into the realm of other colors such as red and the SUPER HEALTHY black rice (forbidden rice)
- Leafy greens-the darker the better
- Colorful veggies such as beets, peppers and eggplant
Take a look at the charts below:
So, don’t be afraid of carbs. Just eat the right kind, in the right amounts. What is dangerous and counter productive is extreme dieting, on either end of the scale. Experiment with macronutrient percentages and find out what’s good for you. Remember, there isn’t one right diet for all humans, but there is one right diet for you. You just need to find it.
- Shanahan, C. and L. Shanahan. Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food