Carbohydrates as a whole are an essential part of healthy nutrition and for most of us, our primary energy source.
Is eating an apple the same as eating a donut? If we’re only looking at macronutrient content, some might say yes due to the classic “if it fits my macros” mindset. However, there is so much more to nutrition and health that factors into this response than just the total number of carbs in each item of food.
Nutrient Value of the Carbohydrate
Unlike macronutrients, micronutrients do not provide significant calories or energy; however, they do play a very important role in health and performance. This is because micronutrients are what supply us with our vitamins and minerals. A total of 13 vitamins and 14 minerals are required by humans with some of them playing a large role in performance. For example, magnesium can be used for ATP production, iron is necessary for oxygen delivery and vitamin E is essential as an antioxidant.
A common carbohydrate source high in micronutrients are bananas which are high in potassium, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. The potassium content of the banana is especially beneficial as it may help lower blood pressure and improve heart health. Another example would be blueberries, which contain high amounts of vitamin K, vitamin C and manganese. These vitamins and minerals have been shown to safeguard your body from oxidative damage as well as improve memory in older adults.
Comparatively, a carbohydrate low in micronutrients, such as white bread or white pasta contain none of these health benefits. They are usually processed and thus contain more sodium, cholesterol, and often saturated fat.
Therefore, carbohydrate sources that have higher micronutrient contents are better options than those with low micronutrient contents. As a general rule, carbohydrates that are in their natural state contain high concentrations of vitamins and minerals. Industrial processes remove these elements and typically add “empty calories” such as more sugar.
Simple vs. Complex
Simple carbs are foods containing natural sugars and are easily digested by the body. They are quick sources of energy which is often taken before and after training sessions. Some examples of simple carbs include fruits, some vegetables, and milk & milk products.
Complex carbs are food higher in fiber and starch. This means that they take significantly longer to digest and won’t have glucose as readily available to be used as energy. They improve satiety (fullness) and are used as a prolonged energy source. Some examples of complex carbs include whole grains, beans, quinoa, legumes, oats, and brown rice.
Both simple and complex carbohydrates are important when it comes to ensuring we are maintaining healthy nutrition. However, it is important to be able to distinguish them so enough energy and fuel can be consumed.
Glucose vs. Fructose
Dietary carbohydrates metabolize into both fructose and glucose. The body uses both differently; glucose is used to refill muscle glycogen and spike insulin whereas the fructose is sent directly to the liver to fill liver glycogen or is converted to fat. This is only important when it comes to high level athletes looking to improve their post workout recovery through nutrition. These athletes would look to avoid high fructose foods.
Most carbohydrates are primarily made up of chains of glucose; however, some fruits are very high in fructose. These fruits include apples, cherries, mangoes, watermelon and pears. Fruits that are lower in fructose include bananas, blueberries, strawberries and oranges.
There is a lot more to carbohydrates than the macronutrient count. In general, it is best to select the most of your carbohydrate sources from a wide variety of unprocessed foods. These foods will be the most nutrient dense and offer an array of benefits that can optimize long-term health and performance. However, the most nutrient dense carbohydrates are often not the most calorically dense so performance and overall calorie needs must also be taken into account.