What Are Carbs And What Do They Do?

The very first question that strikes our mind while considering carbs in diet is, what are carbs and what do they do? Well, in short the molecules which have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are called carbohydrates aka carbs. The general formula for carbohydrates is Cn(H2O)n with a hydrogen–oxygen atom ratio of 2:1. Along with proteins and fats, it is one of the three superior nutrients.

 Carbohydrates are energy rich compounds which provide energy to the body in the form of glucose.  It should be noted that glucose (sugar) is the basic energy source that regulates the amount of sugar present in blood which is used to support various functions and physical activities of the body.

So, it can be established that carb-rich foods get digested into the body in the form of glucose and then glucose is provided to the cells, tissues and other vital organs.

Moreover, the excess amount of glucose is stored in liver along with muscles for utilization upon further need. The most common sources of the carbohydrates include foods such as vegetables, fruits, milk, nuts, grains, seeds and leguminous plants.

Good Carbs Vs Bad Carbs

There is a distinct difference between good and bad carbs as they have direct influence on the blood glucose levels.

Good Carbs

The carbs which do not raise the glycemic index or blood glucose levels abruptly are known as good carbs. These are present naturally in a variety of food sources. The healthy foods sources are the ones which are not processed.

These are also called good carbs because they are generally low in calories but provide high amounts of nutrients along with fibre to the body. These also contain low amounts of salt and are low in cholesterol levels and trans-fats.

Good Carbs Food Sources

Healthy carbohydrates choices include natural sugars in the form of fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products along with whole grains, beans, peas, and corn which nourish the body by providing vitamins and important minerals.

Good Carb Options

  • 100% whole-grain cereals
  • Whole-wheat flour
  • Sprouted whole-grain
  • kernelsBrown rice
  • Whole oats (not grinded ones)
  • Unhulled barley
  • Corn kernels
  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Fresh whole fruits instead of juices
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Non-fat dairy foods
  • Bean-rich soups

Bad Carbs

The carbs which raise blood sugar levels rapidly and cause excessive insulin production are known as bad carbs. These unhealthy carbohydrate sources include the foods that are highly processed and refined like white flour. Moreover it has been observed that the bad carbs are caloric rich, low in nutrients and fiber levels and high in sodium, cholesterol, along with saturated and trans-fats.

Bad Carbs Food Sources

Such processed foods aid in weight gain and can lead to certain health complications such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The unhealthy food choices include corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, honey, sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar, molasses and malt syrup etc.

Bad Carb Options

  • Corn dogs or energy bars.
  • Refined sugary products
  • Fruit juices rather than fruit as a whole
  • Processed corn flakes
  • White rice
  • Highly processed breakfast cereal
  • Steaks
  • Cheeseburgers
  • Vitamin water
  • Packed whole grains mixed with syrups/ honey/ molasses and other simple sugars
  • Whole grain bagel (processing involved)
  • Whole-grain crackers or chips

Daily Dietary Recommendations Of Carbohydrates

Dietary Guidelines for Americans provided by USDA for consuming carbohydrates on daily basis suggest that carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 % of the total calories consumed daily.

Therefore, a person consuming 2,000 calories a day should consume between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates a day. The information about the carbohydrate content is also given on the Food fact labels. It should be noted that 1 gram of carbohydrate contains approximately 4 kilocalories (kcal) calories.

How many basic types of carbs are there? There are three major types of carbohydrates which include:

  • Sugar
  • Starch
  • Fibre


Sugars cover the domain of the simplest carbohydrates. These are present in some foods naturally while are added to other artificially. The natural sugar containing foods are fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. The common table sugar that is used in homes is known as sucrose and the milk sugar is called lactose. The sugar present in fruits is known as fructose.


Starches are known as the complex carbohydrates due to the presence of different sugars bounded together. These are naturally found in some vegetables such as potatoes, beans, peas, and corn, and are also found in legumes, breads, cereals, in addition to whole grains.


Fibres are the complex carbohydrates that are not readily digested by the human body and pass through the digestive system without being broken down into sugars. Therefore, it is not a source of energy but still is needed by the body to perform additional functions.

Moreover, fiber helps in getting rid of fats in the intestines and helps in pushing down foods easily resulting in relieving constipation. Fibre-rich foods are fruits, vegetables, peas, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole-grain including oatmeal, and brown rice. The dietary recommendations of Fibres suggest consuming 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day.

Mix Of Food And Healthy Plate Concept

The mix of food concept is important for proper functioning of the body because it helps in the activated and sustained fat metabolism, control and maintain the blood sugar levels and revamp the essential micronutrients essential for fat metabolism. Omega 3, Omega 6, Alpha lipoic acid, Vitamin A,B,C and E, chromium and Zinc.

The Healthy Eating Plate is a concept that generally recommends eating foods from all five food groups.

However, in case of carbs about half of the plate should be filled with healthy carbohydrates including vegetables and fruits majorly. The whole grains are recommended to be filling up about one fourth of the plate.

Counting Carbohydrates & Meal Planning

A normal healthy adult should consume the good carbs as mentioned by USDA up to 225 and 325 grams but for diabetics the meal planning and portion sizes especially of carbohydrate rich foods should be closely monitored and planned to avoid abrupt increase in the glucose levels in blood.

The daily recommended amount of foods containing carbs for diabetics is 45-60 grams of carbohydrate per meal. However, the exact amount of the carbs suggested for diabetics cannot be quantified due to individual differences in the individuals. It is suggested to balance out the high glycemic Index foods with the low ones. Therefore, carbohydrate counting for the diabetic meal planning is a must.

Fiber rich foods are beneficial for diabetics. The American Diabetes Association has provided a complete list of foods that contain 15 grams of fibre. For example there is about 15 grams of carbohydrate in 4 ounce piece of fresh fruit.

 A slice of bread of 1 oz weight, 1/2 cup of oatmeal, a one third cup of pasta or rice, 4 to 6 crackers, half of ham burger,1/2 cup of black beans or starchy vegetable, two small sized cookies, 3 oz piece of a baked potato, 2/3 cup of plain fat-free yogurt or sweetened with sugar substitutes, a piece of plain cake of 2 inch square, 1/2 cup ice cream, one table spoon of syrup, jam, jelly, sugar or honey, 1 cup of soup, 6 chicken nuggets or quarter serving of French fries; equal to 15 grams of fibers.

Carbs And Weight loss- The Satiety Factor

The carbohydrates are known for the induction of satiety factor-the feeling of fullness after consumption and can serve as a very effective weight reduction strategy. Generally for weight loss a diet containing 50 to 100 grams of carbs are recommended which allows weight shed effortlessly. A good practice would be taking carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables and good carbs in small quantities from healthy starches like potato.

Carbohydrates And Weight Loss

Carbohydrates had been promoted as the enemy for the weight watchers. So indeed, most of the weight loss diets or weight loss plans devoid the candidates from carbs by either excluding it from diet in form of no carb diet or low carbohydrates diet.

It has been found that carbohydrates are essential for the essential ingredients that trigger the fat loss process after targeting the metabolism. The mix food concept as described above helps in enhancing the metabolism with essential ingredients essential for the maintenance of resting metabolism and enhancing the generalized metabolism of the body.

The Controversy Of Potatoes With Weight Reduction:

The high carb diets including the intake of resistant starches e.g., potatoes and sweet potatoes along with healthier grains like rice and oats has been circling around in the western community and is known as the “Starch solution” or “Potato cleanse”.  This weight loss approach has been based on the findings from a book written by American physician, -Dr. John McDougall named as ‘The Starch Solution’.

The author emphasized on eating carb-rich, low-fat, whole foods or plant-based starches such as potatoes, rice, corn & pasta as well as fresh fruit and vegetables while excluding all animal foods and added vegetable oils to promote weight loss.

Although a significant weight loss was reported by many users but the diet plan introduced by McDougall has been labeled as ‘fad’ and controversial due to certain health gastrointestinal complications and the inclusion of boring food choices.

However, the gist of his diet plan is the weight loss treatment provided by the carb-rich diets which make a person feel full and eat less and in return results in burning more calories. A beneficial point of this diet approach is that the foods included are low in cholesterol and heart healthy.

Carbohydrates And Its Relation To Different Health Conditions

Carbohydrates have grave effects on body in case of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, depression and other conditions.

  1. Carbs And Diabetes

The carbohydrate content is not same for all types of foods. The complex or refined carbs which mostly include the sugary compounds result in spiking the blood sugar levels more quickly than others.

The measure of how fast or slow carbohydrates are turned into blood glucose are checked by a term known as the glycemic index. In a normal healthy person, the carbohydrates that are consumed gets transformed into glucose i.e. blood sugar used by the body for energy.

However, extremely high or low levels of glucose indicate the trouble associated with insulin production in the body and eventually can result in diabetes, insulin resistance or other serious health complications.

  • Carbohydrates And Blood Sugar

The term ‘glycemic index’ is used readily while addressing the blood sugar levels in the body. It is the measure of the rate at which certain foods raise the blood sugar level. Therefore, keeping Glycemic index of certain foods under consideration becomes very important as the high-glycemic foods such as sugary cake raise blood sugar level highly and rapidly and this abrupt increase in the blood glucose levels are not appreciated as these are linked with causing diabetes, heart diseases and some sort of cancers.

  • Glycemic Load

The term glycemic load is the practical estimation of the glycemic index of certain foods to check the extent of the increment in the blood-sugar levels after consumption of a specific food. It can easily be calculated by the help of a simple equation which works by multiplying a food’s Glycemic index in percentage by the number of net carbohydrates in a given serving. It can be mathematically indicated by the following equation:

GL = GI/100 x Net Carbs

It should be noted that the net carbs are equal to the total carbohydrates minus dietary fiber.

For diabetics and the people who want to lose weight the meals are planned including low glycemic loads. Mostly nutritionist considers a glycemic index to be low if it is less than 10 and a glycemic load above 20 as high.

American Diabetes association has divided the foods according to the glycemic index. These include:

  • Low GI Foods (55 or less)
  • Medium GI (56-69)
  • High GI (70 or more)

The low Glycemic index foods which raise the glycemic index up to 55 or less than that are: stone-ground whole wheat or pumpernickel bread Oatmeal , oat bran, muesli Pasta, converted rice, barley, bulgar, sweet potato, corn, yam, lima or butter beans, peas, legumes , lentils and fruits, non-starchy vegetables and carrots etc.

The foods which raise blood glucose level up to 56 to 69 are whole wheat, rye and pita bread, oats or rice (brown, wild or basmati).

The foods which are considered as high glycemic index foods are white bread or bagel Corn flakes, puffed rice, bran flakes, instant oatmeal, white rice, rice pasta, macaroni and cheese from mix Russet potato, pumpkin Pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn, saltine crackers melons and pineapple

According to the American Diabetes Association, fat and fiber have the potential to lower the Glycemic Index and the refined processed foods are believed to raise the GI in the blood.

However, it is also noted that three basic factors also affect the GI of the foods. The storage time, processing and cooking method also affects the GI of the foods and it is observed that the ripped foods have high glycemic indexes than the unripened ones.

Similarly, the processing of foods also increases the GI index. e.g., artificially prepared fruit juices have a higher GI than whole fruits; and mashed potato has a higher GI than a whole baked potato. It has been also observed that the cooking procedure also determines the glycemic index of the food, so, the pasta which would be cooked more would have high GI value.

  1. Carbohydrates Deficiency

The scientific developments in the field of food science and human nutrition suggest that carbohydrates are necessary for a well-nourished healthy body. Carbs are known to act as body fuel to perform different functions of the body.

They help in executing different functions of major organs, including the brain, central nervous system and kidneys.  The carbohydrates become the part of the food after being broken down into glucose and the hormone insulin is secreted by the pancreas which then moves in the cells of the body.

The perfect amount of carbs for people who wants to lose weight without any adverse effects is considered as 20-50 Grams daily.

However, carbohydrates should not be consumed less than 50 grams per day as carbs in such less quantities will get the body into ketosis, which is a disturbed metabolic state in which the raised levels of ketone bodies in the body are found that are associated with abnormal fat metabolism and can result in diabetes mellitus.

So, low carb fruits and vegetables like avocados, Cauliflower, broccoli, nuts and some seeds can provide body with the adequate amount of the required carbohydrates which can offer weight loss option without negatively affecting the body.

  1. Carbohydrates & Depression

The use of refined and carb-rich foods has been linked with depression according to various scientific studies. The underlying reason has been concluded to be high dietary Glycemic Index scores due to the consumption of added sugars and refined grains.

A research study conducted on the post-menopausal women who consumed more dairy, dietary fiber, whole grains, vegetables and fruits (not fruit juices) showed a decreased risk of depression.

The researchers identified that the basic mechanism which leads to depression is that the refined foods such as white bread, white rice and sodas trigger hormonal responses to reduce the blood sugar levels in the body and in doing so the mood gets worsen and fatigue along with other symptoms of depression prevail.

Therefore, good carbs in moderate quantities on daily basis should be consumed to avoid the risk factors for this psychological disorder and related disease conditions including diabetes.

  1. Cardio-Protective Carbs

American Heart Association suggests that all of the carbohydrates containing foods are not healthy. The carb-rich refined starches and sugars have also been identified as a risk factor for inflammation and cardiovascular disease due to the high amounts of simple sugars, especially fructose that raise triglyceride levels in the body which can result in coronary heart disease, diabetes along with fatty liver diseases.

It is recommended to limit the amount of highly processed refined simple sugars which are calorie-rich but low in nutrition. Fruit and vegetable intake daily has been associated with reduced incidences of cardiovascular diseases.

The fresh fruit consumption was also highlighted by the ‘The New England Journal of Medicine’ (NEJM) and findings from a research study revealed that people  who consumed  fresh fruit, such as apples and oranges, every day had reduced the risk to one-third of dying from a heart attack or stroke, compared to those who rarely or never ate fruit.

American Heart Association also suggest to consume whole-grain rice, breads and cereals, and legumes including beans, lentils and dried peas to avail the cardio-protective benefits from these healthy carbs.

  1. Carb Paleo-Diet Led To Brain Development

A ‘Paleo diet’ is known as a simple, organic and closer to the natural diet based on the types of foods presumed to have been eaten by early humans. It focuses on eating simple foods such asfruits, vegetables, meat and fish in simple forms and avoiding cereals, dairy products or processed foods altogether.

According to The New York Times, the scientific literature supports the beneficial aspects of carb rich paleo diet sources of foods consumed by the ancient people including mainly the tubers and other starchy foods in contributing in the human brain development.

The findings suggested that the human ancestors over millions of years ago used to eat high carb diets which resulted in the increased development and evolution of the current human brains.  Starchy carbohydrates are known to act as effective brain fuels, according to the belief.

Another study has found that carbohydrates especially starch is necessary for brain development. The salivary amylase genes’ co-evolution of copy number variation is used to prove it.

  1. Carbohydrates And Gum Diseases

Carbohydrates have a deep connection with the dental problems. Most of the high carbohydrates food is sticky and promote dental caries.BMC Oral Health Journal stated a research that diet low in carbohydrates and rich in omega 3 is good for gums.

Carbohydrates are a vital part of a healthy diet and moderate amounts of carbohydrates in foods should be consumed by healthy adults on daily basis. Considering simple or complex carbohydrates, a diet containing a mix of simple carbohydrates with slightly increased amount of complex carbohydrates is recommended.

As simple sugars have been seen to be digested quickly and result in sudden burst of energy which comes back to normal after sometime with exception of leading to the feeling of fatigue.

Similarly, the artificial or added sugars should also be taken with caution as they are calorie rich but lack in important nutrients and can lead to weight gain. Complex carbohydrates on the other hand take time in getting digested and supply the body with more balanced amounts of glucose into the blood stream.

Therefore, in addition to simple sugars, some complex carbohydrate foods serve as a better choice and by doing so a constant healthy weight can be maintained.

Furthermore, low carb diets or crash diets which lead to the state of carbohydrate deficiency or ketosis should be avoided and healthy carb-rich alternatives should be added to the meal planning.

Similarly, another important aspect related to the carbohydrates deficiency suggests that the crash diets which focus on excluding healthy carbs from diet leads to miraculous weight loss in short amount of time i.e. actually the water weight and gets back on as soon as the carbs are included back in the dietary regime.

Therefore, meals should be carefully planned without exclusion of these important macromolecules and nutrients.

Diabetics should plan their meals according to the glycemic indexes of different food items by calculating the glycemic loads of the foods.

Fibre-rich foods should be made a part of daily diet to avoid bowel related health complications. Overall, a balanced approach of consuming carbs in diet has been associated with useful health benefits.

NOTE: The article is not recommending any dosage during different diseases. In case of any disease or diet plan, consult your health care provider.

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