Unlocking Carbohydrates: Expert Advice from Dr. Lucas Grant

Ask the Science Team: Understanding Carbohydrates with Dr. Lucas Grant

This month, for our Ask the Science Team post, we sat down in the heart of Trawden with Dr. Lucas Grant, principal scientist at Unicity, to discuss all things carbohydrates. From the benefits and downsides, to why you should prioritize complex carbs over simple carbs, and much more. Dive into our Q&A below to learn more about how carbohydrates function and their impact on your overall health and wellness.

What is a Carbohydrate?

A carbohydrate is a molecule comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These molecules are essential because they break down in the body and undergo cellular processes to produce energy. Carbohydrates are a vital part of our diet, as they provide the energy we need to function. Notably, our brains rely heavily on carbs to operate optimally.

Nevertheless, in today’s overly processed world, many people consume too many processed carbs, which can be detrimental. Broadly, there’s a distinction between two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. It’s crucial to focus on complex carbs.

What is the Difference Between Simple and Complex Carbohydrates?

Simple carbs consist of monosaccharides (single sugars) and disaccharides (double sugars). Examples of monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Disaccharides include sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar), and maltose. Sucrose is actually a combination of glucose and fructose. Simple carbs are easy for your body to digest and absorb, which can result in weight gain if consumed abundantly without enough physical activity.

This happens because glucose is the primary energy molecule in humans. Most simple carbs break down into glucose, convert to glucose for energy use, or store for later. This process is quicker than with other carb sources, requiring a keen eye on the intake.

Complex carbs are made up of oligosaccharides and polysaccharides—longer chains of sugar molecules. Fiber and starch are examples. Generally, complex carbs cause a slower blood glucose rise than simple carbs since the chemical bonds between these sugar molecules need breaking before bloodstream absorption. Certain fibers can swell and create a gel-like structure in the gut, aiding prolonged fullness and supporting healthy blood sugar levels.

Humans lack digestive enzymes to break down most fibers, so benefits come from our gut microbiome—the helpful bacteria in our gut. These bacteria extract nutrients from fiber and can convert it into other vital energy sources, bolstering weight management. It’s fascinating, isn’t it?

On the flip side, we have the enzymes to break down starch, which includes chains of glucose, typically resulting in a greater blood glucose rise than fiber-rich foods. Therefore, opt for high-fiber over high-starch foods. For better sources of starch, opt for whole grain bread over white bread, or foods high in resistant starch, such as legumes, which behave like beneficial fibers and aren’t quickly digested.

Foods High in Fiber:

  • Fruits like apples, bananas, oranges, raspberries, and strawberries
  • Nuts and seeds—chia seeds, flax seeds, almonds, pistachios, sesame seeds
  • Beans, especially navy and white beans
  • Whole grains

Foods High in Starch:

  • Corn
  • Peas
  • Rice
  • Breads
  • Potatoes

Why Are Complex Carbs Better for Us?

Simple carbs break down faster and leave you hungry sooner than complex carbs. This can lead to consuming more simple carbs, which may turn into fat if not used for energy. They can also cause a quick spike in blood sugar and insulin levels, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Over time, this can have unwanted effects on body tissues.

Complex carbs, digested more slowly, keep you full for longer and provide a steady glucose release into the bloodstream, causing a mild rise in blood sugar and a controlled insulin response.

What is the Glycemic Index?

While not all simple carbs are bad, and not all complex carbs are good, the glycemic index helps. It rates how “healthy” a carb will be for you, giving foods a value that indicates their effect on blood glucose (sugar) compared to pure glucose. Foods with a higher number cause a bigger glucose spike, while those with a lower number cause a smaller or slower effect.

Choose foods with a lower glycemic index for better health, often high-fiber whole foods like apples, beans, lentils, and broccoli. High-glycemic index foods are easily and quickly digested, such as cookies, cake, and French fries. Surprisingly, sweetened dairy products like yogurt, fruits like watermelon and pineapple, and some whole-wheat breads have high glycemic indexes too.

Here are some easy swaps for more controlled blood glucose responses:

  • Instead of white rice, opt for brown rice
  • Choose multigrain bread over white bread
  • Select broccoli or leafy greens over corn

How Do I Get More of the Right Carbs in My Diet?

To maximize your carbs’ benefits, start the day with whole grains and use whole or multigrain breads for snacks and lunches. Check your cereal or bread’s ingredients list to ensure whole grain is listed first.

An easy way to ensure adequate intake is to retain the skins when eating veggies and fruits. Skins are generally nutrient-rich; for instance, a whole apple has up to 332% more vitamin K and 115% more vitamin C compared to a peeled one. They typically contain more fiber, too.

What Foods Should I Avoid?

Avoid foods with excessive added sugars, such as soda, baked treats, and fruit juices. Also, limit refined grains like white bread, white rice, pasta, and crackers.

How Many Grams of Carbohydrates Should I Eat Per Day?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that the average adult should aim to consume between 900 to 1300 calories (45-65% of calorie intake) from carbs daily.

As a rule of thumb, fill around half to two-thirds of your meals with healthy carbs, prioritizing vegetables or higher-nutrient carbs like beans, brown rice, or quinoa. Examine the “total carbohydrates” section on food labels. Total carbs are divided into sugars and fibers. Since most people lack sufficient dietary fiber, focus on high-fiber foods and avoid those with added sugars.

We hope this insight from Dr. Grant enriches your understanding of carbohydrates and supports a balanced, healthy diet here in Trawden and beyond. Cheers!