What Are Carbohydrates: How to Use Them for Optimal Health

Our bodies are pretty extraordinary. Just think of all those complex systems connected and working together to keep us balanced and healthy. They do such a good job that we don’t even notice it’s happening.

We sit down for a meal of lemon pepper chicken breast, a bit of pasta, and a side of Caesar salad for lunch. The flavors burst in our mouths and we can’t wait for another bite. As we fill up we start to slow down, the food progressively becomes less exciting and we feel satiated until it’s time for our next meal. The practice of eating has become almost subconscious. We barely think about how the food is going to affect our bodies. Often times we’re only concerned with how it tastes rather than the long-term effect of how it’s going to make us feel.

In this article we will give an explanation for a crucial question of the human diet: What are carbohydrates? But before we get into too much detail, we need to go over some terms and get a little basic education.

What are carbohydrates?

Italian food ingredients on wooden table

Carbohydrates or carbs, for short, are one part of a 3-part group of macro-nutrients essential for life. Proteins and fats are the other two members. Of the three, carbohydrates are needed in the highest amount; 45%-65% of your daily consumption should be carbohydrates.

So, what is so special about carbohydrates? Why do we need so much of them? And why is this little voice in the back of your head saying “No! Carbs are bad! They’ll fatten you up!”? To answer these questions, we’ve got to break it down a bit further.

When we say “Carb” what we really mean is “glucose” and by that we mean “sugar”. Now, sugar has gotten a bad rap. All those processed foods and sugary baked items have scared some of you away. That’s understandable, but we’re not talking about those processed, refined sugars. We’re talking about natural plant made sugars- The good stuff. The ones that your cells can’t wait to use up. Your brain yearns for them. Why? Because sugar is ultimately what keeps you alive. Every single cell in your body needs it to live. But don’t go pulling out that cheesecake in the back of the fridge just yet.

Not all carbs are created equal!

We’re going to clear the record once and for all. Carbs are not bad. Like we said before, every single cell needs sugar. So, how could it possibly be bad if your body needs it to survive? This is where those sayings come in: “carbs are a bad thing”, “good carbs, bad carbs”, etc etc. By bad carbs they mean processed, refined sugars. Our bodies do not need these types of sugars at all.

Not one little bit.

These types of refined sugar foods have a high glycemic index. Not to get all scientific on you, but it’s important to explain how these sugars work in the body. Refined simple sugars are sugars that have gone through a process which broke them down or built them up into a 2 piece chain of glucose and fructose. After consumption, because they are “simple” or small chains of sugar molecules, they break apart easily and give you a rush of sugar to the blood stream causing your body to excrete insulin very rapidly to try to level out your blood sugar. And the rush comes as quickly as it goes. I’m sure you’ve all experienced a sugar crash. This type of constant up and down of your blood sugar can cause diabetes and weight gain over time.

What we’re looking for with carbohydrates are those complex, long chain, natural sugar molecules. Don’t be afraid of the word “complex”. I think there is some fear associated with this word. As if “complex” means it’s going to be harder for our bodies to break down… which is true, but that’s what we want. This means that our bodies get a steady, long lasting stream of sugar to our blood. It keeps us fuller for a longer period of time and has no crash associated with it.

Now that you understand the basics, it’s time to get a little more specific on what these simple and complex carbs actually are.

Types of carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates (sugars):

As described above, simple sugars cause a quick rush of sugar to the blood stream. This can be bad if you get a lot of simple sugar at once, but even simple sugar isn’t all bad. It actually occurs naturally in milk, vegetables, and fruits, just in smaller amounts. And honestly, it’s not really bad for you to have those simple refined sugars sometimes either. Everything in moderation. The problem is that you would probably have to eat something like 20 bananas at once to get the same amount of simple sugars as a piece of cake. That’s not a piece of cake (pun intended). This is why it’s much easier for you to gain weight or become diabetic from eating refined sugar foods.

The processes used to refine sugar can manipulate them, make them more sweet, break the chains in strange ways and make them so much different than they are naturally. Our bodies have to work so much harder to get that good old glucose that our cells need. In many ways it’s a paradox to call simple refined sugars “simple” because they are actually more complex for our bodies to digest!

The type of simple sugars we want are the natural ones. These are sugar molecules of just one link: Glucose (blood sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), or galactose (sugar made from digesting the lactose in milk).

Complex carbohydrates (starches and fiber):

Complex carbohydrates are carbohydrates with more than 2 links in the chain of sugar molecules. Examples of these are:

– Trisaccharide: (Three sugar chain) Raffinose is a trisaccharide made of one galactose, one glucose, and one fructose. It is found in potatoes, beets, and beans.
– Tetrasaccharide: (Four sugar chain) Stachyose is a tetrasaccharide made of one glucose, one fructose, and two galactose. It is also found in potatoes, beets, and beans.
– Polysaccharide: (Many units in chain) Polysaccharides are made up of long chains of glucose. They are found in pasta, potatoes, and rice.

Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate but in many ways it’s in a class of its own. Unlike other carbohydrates, fiber cannot be broken down by the enzymes in the digestive system. Because of this fact, fiber is not considered a source of energy, but don’t worry; Fiber has many different benefits for the body. That’s a topic for another day.
Here’s a list of carbohydrates (complex) as written by yourdictionary.com to keep you going:

Common complex carbohydrates

Wheat Corn and White Rice


• Low fat yogurt
• Skim milk

Nuts, Seeds and Legumes:

• Lentils
• Kidney beans
• Chick peas
• Split peas
• Soy beans
• Pinto beans
• Soy milk

Whole Grain Breads and Pastas:

• Breads and pastas made with whole grains listed below provide more fiber resulting in feeling full sooner, and longer.

Whole Grains:

• Buckwheat
• Brown rice
• Corn
• Wheat
• Barley
• Oats
• Sorghum
• Quinoa

Fruits and Vegetables:

• Potatoes
• Tomatoes
• Onions
• Okra
• Dill pickles
• Carrots
• Yams
• Strawberries
• Peas
• Radishes
• Beans
• Broccoli
• Spinach
• Green beans
• Zucchini
• Apples
• Pears
• Cucumbers
• Asparagus
• Grapefruit
• Prunes
• Carrots

Carb related diets

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for some time, you will have heard about numerous kinds of carb related diets. Some tell you to cut carbs and some tell you to carb up. While we don’t know everything about all these diets, one thing is clear: There is a lot of confusion about how to use carbs in your diet. It doesn’t help that there are so many different kinds of carbs. It’s impossible to know what someone means when they say “You’ve got to cut down on carbs!”… Which carbs? Simple carbs? Complex carbs? Or more specific kinds like starchy carbs? If you’re thinking about trying any of these diets we suggest that you do your research to fully understand what it is exactly you need to be carbing up or down on. No matter what kind of diet you have, you need to keep your glucose levels in check and keep your body fed properly.

Complex carbohydrate snacks

These yummy complex carbohydrate snacks will help you refuel throughout the day to keep you energized and satisfied!

Sweet potato chips (paleogrubs.com):



2 Large Sweet Potatoes
2 tbsp melted coconut oil
2 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp sea salt

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Peel the sweet potatoes and slice them thinly, using either a mandolin or a sharp knife. In a large bowl, toss the sweet potatoes with coconut oil, rosemary, and salt.
2. Place the sweet potato chips in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Bake them in the oven for 10 minutes, then flip the chips over and bake them for another 10 minutes. For the last ten minutes, watch the chips closely and pull off any chips that start to brown, until all of the chips are cooked.

No bake, 4 ingredient, oatmeal peanut butter protein balls – gluten free (finecooks.com)


1 cup certified gluten free dry oats
¾ cup all-natural creamy peanut butter, room temp
¼ cup milled flax seed
2 tbsp honey


1. Mix everything together in a bowl
2. Roll into 1 ¼ “ balls
3. Eat right away and/or chill

Homemade granola by Leslie Bilderback (netplaces.com)


• ¼ cup peanut oil
• ¼ cup honey
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 4 cups rolled oats
• ½ cup whole-wheat flour
• ½ cup oat bran
• ½ cup wheat germ
• ½ cup hulled sunflower seeds
• ½ cup toasted coconut
• ½ cup golden raisins
• ½ cup dried cranberries
• 1 cup chopped dates
• 1 cup chopped almonds


1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Coat a baking sheet with pan spray.
2. In a small saucepan, combine oil, honey, and vanilla. Warm it over medium heat until it begins to simmer.
3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine oats, flour, bran, germ, and sunflower seeds. Stir it in the warm oil mixture and toss together to thoroughly moisten.
4. Spread the granola onto the baking sheet in an even, thin layer. Toast in the oven for 1 hour, stirring every 10 minutes to promote even browning.
5. Cool, then mix in raisins, dates, and almonds. Serve with milk or yogurt, or eat it as is for a great snack.
6. Store airtight for up to 1 week at room temperature, or in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Nutritional Breakdown:


• 930 calories
• 39 g fat
• 133 g carbohydrates
• 24 g protein
• 18 mg sodium
• 19 g fiber

Healthy banana bran muffins (yummly.com)



• 2 tbsps butter (softened)
• 1/3 cup applesauce
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 2 large eggs
• 3 bananas (medium ripe, mashed)
• 1/2 cup buttermilk
• 11/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 11/2 tsps baking soda
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 4 cups bran flakes
• 1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, applesauce and sugar. Add the eggs, bananas and buttermilk and mix well. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, bran flakes and chocolate chips. Mix just until evenly moistened. The batter will be lumpy with a few dry streaks.
3. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake for 16-18 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Store the muffins in an airtight container for 1-3 days or freeze in a resealable freezer bag or airtight container for up to a month.

Carbohydrate connoisseur

Now that you know everything you ever dreamed of knowing about carbohydrates you can get out there and create great eating habits. We know you’ll feel great and look great too!

About the author


Lauren is a writer and painter. When she's not painting or writing, she enjoys cooking, exercising, playing music, singing, and getting lost on YouTube for hours on end.

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