Carbohydrate is one of the three macronutrients, with fat and protein being the other two. Each macronutrient is responsible for supplying the body with energy, also known as calories.
Carbs are considered to be the body's main source of energy and are quickly utilized by the brain and muscles, though the ones not used for immediate are stored in the liver or muscles for a later time.
There are two primary classifications of carbohydrates, including simple and complex carbs:
Simple carbs or sugars either contain one or two sugar molecules and classified into monosaccharides (fructose, glucose, and galactose) and disaccharides (sucrose, maltose, and lactose). Their short structure causes them to be generally digested and absorbed much more quickly compared to complex carbohydrates.
While not all simple carbs are stripped away from nutrients and fiber, including natural sugars sourced from nutritious veggies, fruits, and dairy products, most of the intake comes from sources such as corn syrup, table sugar, candy, and soft drinks that essentially offer nothing more than sugar and calories.
Complex carbohydrates are also known as starches and polysaccharides, which contain three or more sugars. Their longer structure causes them to be generally digested and absorbed more slowly compared to simple carbs.
Complex carbs are found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. And since complex carbohydrates come in their whole, unprocessed form, they tend to be an excellent source of fiber, offer essential vitamins and minerals, and bare a number of health benefits.
The Benefits of Complex Carbs
1. Sustains Energy
Glucose provided by carbs is the body's preferred source of energy. But rather than consuming simple sugars that cause a quick spike and drop, it is recommended to consume complex carbs that burn much slower in the system and sustain fuel for much longer.
2. Manages Weight
High-fiber foods are generally low in calories and tend to be more filling than non-fiber foods. The combination of low-calorie and satiety may facilitate weight loss and/or encourage weight maintenance.
3. Promotes Muscle Growth
Whereas protein is vital for building muscle, the presence of carbs is likewise as important to optimize growth and recovery.
Eating post-workout replenishes glycogen stores and puts the body in an anabolic state, or essentially the process of building muscle. Consuming a 3 or 4:1 of carbs to protein following a workout is often recommended for prime results.
4. Regulates Blood Sugars
The gentle absorption of complex carbs helps keep blood sugar levels sustained and steady, whereas simple carbs ignite quick energy that may spike blood sugars, only to quickly drop them shortly after.
5. Supports Brain Health
The brain uses carbs as fuel and if devoid of carbs, you might feel light-headed and irritable, along with having a difficult time concentrating and focusing.
Furthermore, fiber-rich whole grains have been linked to reduced cognitive impairments, while the folate found in oats and other whole grains is crucial for proper brain development and function, and ultimately, supporting mental health and wellbeing. Antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals supplied by complex carbs have shown to be protective against dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
6. Backs Digestive Health
The fiber found complex carbs promotes bowel health and regularity, especially thanks to “bulk-forming” insoluble fiber sources found in fibrous veggies, nuts, and fruits that bare a tougher skin. Diets rich in fiber have also shown to protect from diseases of the colon, hemorrhoids, and colorectal cancer.
7. Reduces Mortality Risk
A recent meta-analysis including over 400,000 participants found that mortality (death) risk was elevated for people who followed high-carbohydrate diets and those who followed low-carb diets. Diets that provide 50 to 55 percent of total energy from carbohydrates were associated with lower mortality risk, with substitution of plant-based proteins for carbs further reducing mortality risk.
That being said, rather than dramatically dropping carb intake or significantly increasing them, balance the meal plate with lean proteins and healthy fat sources. Doing so is a surefire approach to ensure the body is receiving the nutrients it requires, along with promoting longevity.
Best Sources of Complex Carbs and Fiber
Whole Grains: wheat, oats, brown rice, quinoa, millet, rye, farro, quinoa, barley along with whole-grain breads, cereals, and flours
Beans and Legumes: lentils, soybeans, peas, peanuts, chickpeas, beans including black, kidney, and pinto
Nuts and Seeds: almonds, cashews, pecans, chia and flax seeds, quinoa, walnuts
Starchy Vegetables: beets, butternut squash, carrots, corn, russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, yams, zucchini
Fiber-Rich Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, onions, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, and green, leafy veggies such as kale, spinach, and lettuce
Fiber-Rich Fruits: bananas, oranges, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fruits with the skin such as apples and pears
The Bottom (Noncomplex) Line
When it comes down to it, the answer to health is relatively simple:
Eat wholesome foods, including complex carbs that are high in nutrients and fiber, and reduce the intake of refined sugars that offer little to no nutritional value.
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