Function of carbohydrates in the body – When it comes to nutrition, there are macro nutrients and micro nutrients. Macro nutrients are energy fueling molecules that our body needs in vast quantities.
They form the physical mass of most of our food. These include fats, carbs, and proteins.
Micro nutrients are trace chemicals the body needs, but only in very small amounts.
These are your vitamins and minerals.
When it comes to macros, carbs are important when it comes to the energy system.
Unlike fat and protein which have other roles such as structure, communication, and transport, carbs are almost entirely just for energy, either free or stored.
The brain is especially reliant on carbs for energy purposes, so you need to have some quantities of it in order to function properly.
The problem in modern times is the way we source carbs.
This problem can be broken down by looking at the types of carbs we consume and how each affects our health.
Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs
The debate today around carbs seems to be largely focused on the number of carbs.
Low carb diet or even “no carb” attempts are a way of trying to correct our attitude towards carbs and what effects they have on us.
For some time, fat was generally blamed for the decline in metabolic health in western populations, but as science has peeled back the layers, we’ve come to understand that function of carbohydrates in the body and play the dominant role in how our diets affect unhealthy weight gain.
In typical human fashion, we seem to have overcorrected and now a large ongoing sentiment is how carbs are bad for you.
The truth is, carbs are not inherently bad, it’s more about the type of carbs we eat.
In this article, we’re going to look at the different forms of carbs and function of carbohydrates in the body, how each can benefit or play against your health.
The Different Type Of Carbs And What They Mean For Your Health
Carbs are classed into 3 distinct tiers of complexity.
These are monosaccharides, polysaccharides, and oligosaccharides.
They go up in complexity in this order, with each containing a different type of carb.
Let’s look at each level and see with types of carbs exist and what they do to your body as well as some common sources.
These are the simplest form of carbs and contain only one basic carb molecule or sugar.
Our bodies are mainly concerned with glucose as this is the preferred energy substrate of the body and brain.
Most of the other monosaccharides are harmless or even beneficial to the body in moderate amounts, however, fructose has been shown to cause sensitivities in some people and is linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in chronic high doses.
Oligosaccharides are more complex carbs that are comprised of more than one sugar molecule joined together.
The most common oligosaccharides are called disaccharides which are 2 sugar molecules joined to make a more complex carb.
Examples of these disaccharides include sucrose, maltose, and lactose.
The configuration of these is:
- Lactose: glucose + galactose
- Maltose: glucose + glucose
- Sucrose: glucose + fructose
Sucrose is what you know as sugar. It’s one of the most abundantly used forms.
A variant of sugar, known as high fructose corn syrup is an industrial-grade oligosaccharide derived from corn starch.
This type of sugar is considered bad for your health and is the main cause of many nutritional mishaps where sugar is concerned.
Research, however, suggests that this form of sugar, while responsible for many metabolic disorders, is only disruptive in excess as with other forms of sugar such as sucrose.
It’s hard to avoid excess amounts considering how prevalent it is in most industrially processed foods.
A polysaccharide is a truly complex carbohydrate.
They are comprised of 10 or more sugars linked in a chain.
This level of complexity allows polysaccharides to have a much wider variety of applications beyond just being metabolic substrates like mono and oligosaccharides.
Polysaccharides can be used as storage and structural carbohydrates.
In animals, they play a storage role such as glycogen.
In plants, many structures such as the cell walls of plant cells are composed of polysaccharides.
It is in this form that we get fiber and other non-digestible carbs.
Polysaccharides, therefore, have a complementary role.
Fiber, for example, helps mediate the uptake of glucose into the blood, allowing your body to maintain healthy blood glucose levels and therefore preserve insulin sensitivity.
Fiber also has digestive health benefits in the way it helps you get rid of solid waste as well as being prebiotic that nourishes the good bacteria in your colon.
Function of carbohydrates in the body, so which carbs are good and which carbs are bad?
Well, the answer is neither. That’s because the quality is ultimately balanced by quality.
That means certain carbs are healthier even in vast quantities whereas some are immediately unhealthy as soon as a moderate level is achieved.
Fiber, for example, can be consumed in relatively large quantities and still have a net positive effect on your health, while sucrose and glucose must be managed in smaller quantities in order to reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.
It’s also a case in how you combine your carbs. Having a decent fiber component allows less complex sugars to be absorbed slower and therefore presents a net positive effect on your health.