Wellness Refocused Education

Wellness Refocused Education: What Are Carbohydrates?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Did anyone else feel bad for Regina George when she was duped by Cady Herron when she asked if butter was a carb?

I found myself laughing at the time the movie came out, but after working with clients and talking with others, it’s clear that it can be hard to think about food in terms of their macronutrients, especially carbohydrates.

This post will talk about what carbohydrates are because this is really where the misinformation starts, especially when reflecting on daily diet and how to improve general eating. There’s a little bit of the why in here, but that will mostly come in the next post.

When talking about they are, we will look at the kinds of carbohydrates there are in our diets and where you can find some of them. We will touch on some ideas here, that will be explored in later posts too.

Ok, so what are carbohydrates?

By definition: carbohydrates are an organic compound occurring in foods and living tissues and includes sugars, starch and cellulose. Ultimately, carbohydrates is a fancy name for sugar.

Carbohydrates are our first source of energy. They are fuel for us when we are sitting, sleeping, exercising or thinking of doing all of those things.

The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) suggests that carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65% of your total diet. We’ll talk about this more in another post because I think it’s safe to say that the guidelines don’t actually consider all Americans, but for this talk – it’s a starting point.

The Institute of Medicine set the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)  for carbohydrate intake to a minimum of 130g a day. The RDA number is set based off the estimated minimum use of glucose for the brain for an average body, which means it’s relative to the individual (Institute of Medicine, 2005). It might be slightly lower or slightly higher.

Let’s look at carbohydrates a little closer.

Carbohydrates contain the molecules carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (this will be helpful to know for the next post!) and look are presented as a variation of this in chemistry: CH2O (Reece, Taylor, Simon, Dickey, & Hogan, 2015).

Glucose and Fructose molecules

The simplest carbohydrate is a monosaccharide (mono means one)- you’ll find these in glucose and fructose, which are the sugars that carbohydrates break down to (Reece, Taylor, Simon, Dickey, & Hogan, 2015).

You’ll find fructose in fruit. Glucose can be found in corn syrup and plants and found in our blood stream after certain carbohydrates are consumed and broken down.

To the right is the chemical layout for both glucose and fructose at the molecular level so you can see the difference.

When you add two monosaccharides together, they form a disaccharide (di means two). For this binding to happen, water has to be lost. This is how we get maltose, which is used to make beer, malt whiskey and malted milk candy (Thompson & Manore, 2015).


To the left is a picture of maltose, so you can see how glucose joins together. It’s like they’re holding hands if molecules had hands.

We also get sucrose when glucose and fructose join together. Sucrose is found in plants and it’s how we get table sugar (Thompson & Manore, 2015).


To the right is a picture of sucrose. See how there’s more water is lost – goodbye H2O!

A longer chain, known as a polysaccharide are made up of hundreds of thousands of monosaccharides connected by water loss. Starch is an example of this and is found in plants.

FUN FACT: Glucose is stored in humans in the form of glycogen in our muscles as a form of energy for later use.

Here are a few other ‘oses:

  • galactose – doesn’t occur alone in foods. It combines with glucose to create lactose.
  • lactose – “milk sugar”. A common disaccharide found in cow’s milk and breast milk.
  • ribose – five-carbon monosaccharide produced in our bodies from eating other carbohydrates. It can be found in the genetic material in our cells.

Knowing the information above can be helpful for this next part.

Carbohydrates are considered either simple or complex (Thompson & Manore, 2015). 

Quick refreshers!

What kinds of carbohydrates can you find?

  • a monosaccharide is the simplest form and consists of one sugar
  • disaccharides are also simple and consist of two molecules of sugar
  • polysaccharides are made up of hundreds of thousands of monosaccharides
Fructose is a simple carbohydrate and can be found in fruit.

What is considered simple?

  • fruit (fructose)
  • vegetables (fructose)
  • milk (lactose)
  • fermented beverages (maltose)
  • sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, table sugar, brown sugar (sucrose)

What is considered complex?

  • starches including grains like rice, wheat, corn, oats and barley
  • legumes like peas, beans and lentils
  • tubers like sweet potatoes and yam

The digestion process is different for each macronutrient (fat, carbohydrates and protein), which means they breakdown at different rates (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 2017). Carbohydrates breakdown the fastest out of the macronutrients with fat being the slowest.

There are a few enzymes that help breakdown carbohydrates.

  • Salivary Amylase is found in the mouth in your saliva
  • Pancreatic Amylase and Maltase are found in the pancreatic juices (yes, gross I know, but we’re adults here) that are released into the small intestine to breakdown maltose
  • Sucrase and Lactase are found in the small intestine and help breakdown sucrose and lactose, respectively
*When your body lacks the ability to create enough enzymes you may find intolerances like lactose in tolerant – you lack enough lactase enzyme to breakdown lactose. This can result in bloating or other digestive issues. Always consult your primary practitioner regarding these concerns.

Carbohydrates that aren’t easily digested and broken down into this simple state are classified as fiber.

What is fiber?

Fiber is also a carbohydrate and is considered a polysaccharide, but it’s not easily digestible so it doesn’t provide energy to us (Thompson & Manore, 2015). There are two kinds of fiber:

  1. dietary – nondigestible parts of plants that make the form of the plant like leaves
  2. functional –  nondigestible parts of plants that are extracted or manufactured in a lab that is added to foods for health benefits

Even though fiber doesn’t provide energy to us, fiber is important because it helps regulate blood sugar by slowly down digestion and ultimately the release of glucose in the blood stream.

It also helps prevent constipation when consumed in a moderate (relative to an individual) amounts, however, it can also cause constipation when over consumption occurs (also relative to an individual) with too little water (Anderson, et al., 2009). Foods with fiber also help regulate satiety hormone leptin, which tells our brains that we’re no longer hungry.

Currently, the recommended amount of fiber daily is 14g per 1,000 calories consumed, however, and I know you’re getting sick of hearing this, this number is relative to an individual and may be a little more or less based on your own caloric intake, weight and activity level.

Best advice: you should listen to your body to determine true needs. You may recognize that a certain amount helps keep your GI active while for someone else that could cause constipation.

What can you do with this information so far?

Knowing the rate of digestion can be helpful for a couple of reasons:

  1. Simple carbohydrates are digested and absorbed more easily causing quicker energy utilization. This is why you may feel a “spike” in energy after eating something high in sugar, but then feel a “crash” later. This is also why diabetics are encouraged to eat low-glycemic load foods (foods that will breakdown at slower rates), which cause less of an increase in blood glucose. If you’re an athlete this may be very helpful for you to consider with your training.
  2. Our bodies can’t utilize complex carbohydrates in their consumed state, they need to be broken down to glucose (Thompson & Manore, 2015). These foods also contain fiber, which impacts how satiety controlling hormones are released (Chambers, McCrickerd, & Yeomans, 2015). This is why these foods keep us fuller, longer even though protein has the highest satiety effect out of all three macronutrients.

Understanding the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates can be helpful for a  couple of reasons:

  1. You can create a meal plan that combines simple and complex carbohydrates with other foods to not only provide energy in the immediate time, but help you stay feeling full longer. That’s why oats and peanut butter may “stick” with you for a longer time than just oats on their own. Being satisfied for a longer period of time can decrease mindless snacking, can assist you in staying in  caloric deficit if you are seeking fat loss and can help you get through a busy schedule that doesn’t allow many opportunities to eat.
  2. You can create a meal plan that prevents or lessens “energy crashes”. Like stated above, complex carbohydrates take a longer time to breakdown a, which means glucose enters the blood slower so feeling tired or fatigued are less likely or are less impactful.

Now we know carbohydrates are:

  • the first source of energy for us
  • they can be simple or complex
  • they breakdown at different rates, which can influence our blood sugar levels and energy
  • they can be found in both fruits and veggies as well as breads, rice and pasta
  • they can be a variable consideration depending on the individuals goals and body

Some questions you can ask yourself as you’re build your own plan that I challenge clients to ask:

  • Does this make me feel energized?
  • Do I crash quickly in the day?
  • Do I feel bloated?
  • Do I feel satisfied and full with the combinations and amount of carbohydrates I consume?
  • Do I get enough fiber to promote regular digestion?

In the next post, we’ll talk about how carbohydrates provide us energy, lifestyle considerations that may be helpful to figure out your needs and more specific places to find them.


Anderson, J. W., Baird, P., Davis, R. H., Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., . . . Williams, C. L. (2009). Health Benefits of dietary Fiber. Nutrition Reviews, 188-205.

Chambers, L., McCrickerd, K., & Yeomans, M. R. (2015). Optimising Foods for Satiety. Trends in Food Science and Technology, 149-160.

Institute of Medicine. (2005). Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2017, December). Your Digestie Syste & How it Works. Retrieved from National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works

Reece, J. B., Taylor, M. R., Simon, E. J., Dickey, J. L., & Hogan, K. (2015). Campbell Biology: Concepts and Connections. New York: Pearson Education.

Thompson, J., & Manore, M. (2015). Nutrition: An Applied Approach. San Francisco: Pearson Education.