There is so much hype around bread, pasta and rice, well ‘carbs’ for that matter. I am campaigning to stop the hate. Many popular diets have demonised carbohydrates and popularised carbohydrate counting and this is definitely not the way to go! Carbs or carbohydrates, for a little bit of formality, are so incredibly important to our daily functioning. We need them to be able to live whole and be well.

We often hear of low- or no-carb diets and then you also hear of high-carb diets…begging the question…is there such thing as a medium-carb diet? Well, being part of The Foundation Series, today’s blog will delve into the 411 of carbohydrates. We will talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. So here goes…

What is a carbohydrate…?

The common answer to this question is bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, cereal….and so on. In fact, fruits and vegetables are also carbohydrates and so are peas, beans and certain milk products. Carbohydrates supply the body with the fuel it needs to undertake our daily tasks.

A little chemistry for you…

Biologically speaking, carbohydrates are large macromolecules that consist of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms. In scientific terms, carbohydrates are ‘saccharides’ meaning ‘sugar or ‘starch’. There are 4 groups of saccharides:

  • Monosaccharides (1)
  • Disaccharides (2)
  • Oligosaccharides (3-9)
  • Polysaccharides (10+)

Here are some of the many examples…

Monosaccharide Disaccharide

Glucose (energy)


Fructose (fruit sugar)

Lactose (milk sugar)


Sucrose (table sugar)


Glucose + Galactose = Lactose (milk sugar)

Glucose + Fructose = Sucrose (table sugar)

Oligosaccharide Polysaccharide

(found in fruit & veggies)




If you understand Latin, then you’ll be able to link the numbers to the names…but for those of us (like me) who aren’t bilingual, I’ll explain. Monosaccharides (‘mono’ meaning 1) are the simplest of sugars because they are only are made of 1 sugar. Disaccharides (‘di’ meaning 2) are the next simplest because they are made of 2 sugars and…you get the drift. In short, monosaccharides and disaccharides are digested the quickest whilst oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are digested more slowly.

I’ve heard about simple carbohydrates and I’ve also heard about complex carbohydrates….please explain….!

Ok so we’ve talked about the building blocks of carbohydrates…so now we can start to group them together. Simple carbohydrates are also known as simple sugars. In other words these are our monosaccharides and our disaccharides, i.e. our smaller chain sugars, which contain only one or two sugar units. When it comes to food labeling all monosaccharides and disaccharides become known collectively as ‘sugar’. Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar levels. Simple carbohydrates are often referred to as ‘refined’ carbohydrates. Whilst they are referring to the same thing, I tend to focus on each type individually as there can be some overlaps. For example, refined carbohydrates are our processed carbohydrates that have been stripped of all potential nutritional benefit. Simple carbohydrates aren’t always refined with a classic example being whole fruit. Whilst it is digested quickly and does contain sugar in the way of fructose, it is far from being processed or refined in any way! In fact, the simple sugars found in fruit are paired with fibre, lessening fruits effect on our blood sugar levels. The same can be said with lactose (milk sugar), which is paired with protein.

It is also important to remember that sugar has around 60 names! In the western world, simple carbohydrates are often added to our food during processing or when being cooked, with examples being raw sugar, brown sugar, table sugar, fruit juice concentrate, rice syrup, sucrose, honey, molasses and high fructose corn syrup. A dietary focus on ‘nude food’ (i.e. food without packaging) will have us avoiding as many of these hidden sugars as possible.

On the other hand, our mates the polysaccharides are commonly known as complex carbohydrates. There are three main types of polysaccharides; starch (the main polysaccharide used by plants for energy), cellulose (plant fibre) and glycogen (the main polysaccharide used by animals and humans to store energy). Complex carbohydrates pack much more of a punch when it comes to nutrition than their simpler friends. Whilst they use the same building blocks as simple carbohydrates, the chains of complex carbohydrates are much longer and therefore take longer to be absorbed and digested, having much less of an impact on our blood sugar levels and keeping us fuller for longer. Foods under this banner include 100% wholegrain bread, grains and pasta, legumes, nuts/seeds and starchy vegetables.

Okay so now we know what they are…how does the body use carbohydrates?

The carbohydrates in the food we eat are digested into smaller molecules of glucose. Glucose is then used as the primary fuel for our body to function. Glucose is easily absorbed through the walls of the small intestine, where it makes its way to the liver and then to the bloodstream. This causes a rise in our blood sugar levels (aka blood glucose levels). The cells then take what they require and any leftover glucose makes its way back to the liver and muscles where it is stored as glycogen for backup (in case our blood sugar levels drop significantly in between meals). If there is still excess glucose, beyond what the cells, liver and muscles can hold on to, this then turns into fat cells for storage. When the body is starved of carbohydrates, it relies on this stored fat to get by. Moreover, if one requires more energy than is provided by the diet, the body must use its own fat tissue as an energy source.

It is important to note that the brain relies on glucose for ALL its energy. Without sufficient glucose we can experience dizziness, hypoglycaemia and weakness.

Other organs use carbohydrates as fuel too. Some examples include; the liver which uses glucose to break down everything that we put into our bodies – whether it be amino acids from protein, fatty acids from fat and more. Muscle (think of both our skeletal muscles as well as the heart!) also uses carbohydrates as fuel; but it also uses ketone bodies and fatty acids for fuel too.

So I’m thinking that’s enough for today. As you can tell, the story behind carbohydrates is much more ‘complex’ than we think. I’ve highlighted some of the key points below for you. Stay tuned for the next instalment of The Foundation Series – Carbohydrates 2.0, it will be here soon.

Key points:

Carbohydrates = Energy.

4 groups of saccharides or ‘sugar’:

  • Monosaccharides (1)
  • Disaccharides (2)
  • Oligosaccharides (3-9)
  • Polysaccharides (10+)

Monosaccharides and disaccharides are digested the quickest whilst oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are digested more slowly.

Simple Carbohydrates = Shorter chains, smaller sugars, stripped of nutrition (except whole fruit).

Complex Carbohydrates = Longer chains, larger sugars, mostly nutritious.