What are carbohydrates?

So since I have been studying nutrition, I have realised that many people do not actually understand what carbohydrates are. The number of times I have overheard people on the tube saying ‘I have given up carbs’ while munching on sweets beggars belief. So what is a carbohydrate?


A ring of carbons atoms is called a sugar; this ring can have either 5 or 6 carbon atoms in it. What we colloquially refer to as ‘sugar’ is either one or two of these rings of carbon (they can be identical or different) attached together. These simple carbohydrates are used to sweeten many foods and beverages; a common example is table sugar. When we eat sugar, it is very quickly absorbed through our small intestines and into our blood stream, giving us quick-release energy.


This term refers to a chain of sugars attached together. When multiple sugars are attached together, we get a more complex carbohydrate. When broken down (or digested) in our small intestine, sugar is released, which can be absorbed into our blood stream. Starch gives slower release energy than the sugar described above, because of this delay during digestion. When people say they are ‘giving up carbs’ they usually mean they are avoiding starchy foods such as pasta and bread.

Non-starch polysaccharides (AKA fibre or ‘roughage’)

This refers to a chain of sugars attached together like in starch, but the bonds between the sugars are different so cannot be broken down in our intestines so do not get absorbed into the blood stream. The fibre passes through to our small intestine and into our large intestine, where it is fermented by good bacteria, producing mostly gas! Fibre helps keep our digestive system healthy by keeping our good bacteria happy and healthy.


Where do carbohydrates come from?

That depends on the kind of carbohydrate. Starchy carbs come from dietary staples like bread, pasta, grains and potatoes. Sugars come from foods with added sugar such as cakes and biscuits, and are often hidden in processed foods by manufactuers to make them tasty! Fibre comes predominantly from wholegrain foods, fruits and vegetables.

How much carbohydrate do we actually need?

It is currently recommended that we get half our total daily energy (calorie) intake from carbohydrate. However, unlike protein and fat, the two other macronutrients, we do not actually require any carbohydrate in the diet.


So… next time someone tells you they are not eating carbs, treat them with caution if they are munching on Haribo or drinking a high calorie fizzy drink!


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