Carbohydrates – what are they?
Carbohydrates (or carbs for short), along with protein and fat, are the macronutrients that provide us with energy (calories). Carbohydrates and protein both give us 4 kcal per gram, while fat gives you more than double the amount – 9 kcal per gram. Carbohydrates can supply energy to all of our body's cells, including brain cells and red blood cells, which neither fat nor protein can do. That’s why carbohydrates are our most important source of energy.
Why do we need carbs?
Even though carbohydrates are the main source of energy that the organism wants to use, they are not essential to us. This means that we don’t actually need to eat any carbs, since our bodies can create carbohydrates out of protein and fat. Even so, carbs are an important energy source to make your body function at its best. It’s a good idea to eat natural carbs, since they most often contain a lot of dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and other bioactive substances. And we don’t want our bodies to use protein from our muscles to create carbs that we can eat instead, right?
The brain is dependent on glucose (carbohydrate) and needs around 100 g per day. Although the brain weighs only around 1,5 kg, which corresponds to about 2% of your body weight, it uses approximately 20% (400 kcal) of your total energy consumption (based on a 2000 calorie diet). In the case of prolonged carbohydrate deficiency, ketone bodies are formed from the breakdown of fatty acids, which are then used as the main fuel, since securing energy for the brain is crucial for survival. Accumulation of ketone bodies in the blood stream (ketosis) may involve long-term risks and could be life-threatening 1.
When at rest or doing low-intensity exercise, your body uses mainly fat as a source of energy. But as soon as the intensity increases and you want to perform better, your body starts using carbohydrates as a source of energy instead. Carbohydrates are often talked about as a high-octane fuel, meaning that you can perform at a higher level with them. Stored carbohydrates are called glycogen. Your body stores glycogen in your muscles and in your liver. Unfortunately, your body is quite bad at storing it. You can only have around 200-500 g retained in your organism, depending on your muscle mass. The more muscle mass, the larger glycogen deposits 2. These will last you around 1-2 hours when exercising at high-intensity. If you’ve ever felt that you have “hit the wall” during a high-intensity exercise, that’s when your body’s glycogen deposit is running out and your body is shifting to use fat as a source of energy instead – a low-octane fuel. In order to perform at your very best, you should fuel up with carbohydrates every day and rebuild these glycogen stores.
For healthy adults, it’s recommended to get between 45-60% of the energy from carbohydrates and no more than 10% of the energy from refined sugars, even though sugars are not a requirement 3. In a 2000 calorie diet, it corresponds to around 250-300 grams of pure carbohydrates and maximum 50 grams from refined sugars.
A day with 250-300 g of carbs could look like this:
• Bread, wholegrain: 3 slices
• Potatoes, boiled: 3
• Pasta, boiled: 1 portion
• Carrot: 1
• Mixed vegetables: 200 g
• Soy beans: 75 g
• Apple: 1
• Banana: 1
• Milk: 200 ml
• Juice: 200 ml
• Natural Balance Shake: 1 serving
• Natural Balance Bar: 1 bar
For athletes, carbohydrates are generally more recommended in terms of grams per kg body weight, since the energy metabolism varies a lot due to different types of activities. Carb requirements depend on your level of activity. The more active you are, the more carbohydrates you require, especially during training or active days. In fact, many athletes will reduce their carb intake significantly during periods of rest, off season, etc. In general, athletes need 6-10 g of carbs per kg body weight 4.
How to classify carbs
Carbohydrates are formed in plants through photosynthesis, where water and carbon dioxide are converted into carbohydrates, using sunlight as an energy source.
Carbohydrates can be classified in different ways. Chemically, they can be divided into four different subcategories, depending on how many “units” they contain – how complex the molecule is;
• Monosaccharides (1 unit)
o e.g. glucose
• Disaccharides (2 units)
o e.g. lactose, saccharose
• Oligosaccharides (3-9 units)
• Polysaccharides (>10 units)
Carbs can also be nutritionally classified into digestible and non-digestible carbohydrates. The digestible carbohydrates, also called glycaemic carbohydrates, are absorbed in our small intestine and generate energy for our cells. The non-digestible carbs are often called dietary fibre.
You have probably heard of Glycaemic Index (GI) before and that low-GI carbohydrates are better for you. What affects the GI of carbohydrates is not the size of the molecule, it’s the:
• Particle size (e.g. whole grains vs. finely ground flour in bread)
• Intact cell structures (e.g. beans)
• Composition and state of the starch (amylose/amylopectin ratio and degree of gelatinization)
• Presence of soluble, gel-forming dietary fibre components and organic acids (e.g. sourdough bread)
Nowadays, general interest in healthy carbs is more focused on the dietary fibre. If a carbohydrate contains high amount of dietary fibre, it’s considered to be healthy.
As mentioned, dietary fibre cannot be digested by our body’s enzymes in the small intestine, and so it reaches the large intestine, where it is broken down (fermented) by the gut bacteria instead. Dietary fibre can be found the indigestible parts of plans, such as: fruits, berries, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrains – a.k.a. healthy carbs. Evidence shows that high dietary fibre diets are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and colon cancer 5.
When talking about unhealthy carbs, it basically means carbs that are calorie-dense but not nutrient-dense. This means that you get a lot of calories but not enough nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. If you eat a lot of food with high amounts of unhealthy carbs, it is difficult to also fill your diet with nutritious food, without simultaneously getting more calories than you spend.
Examples of unhealthy carbohydrates:
• Refined sugars
• Soft drinks
• Sugar-sweetened cereals
• French fries
Studies show that when we drink sugar-sweetened soft drinks or any other calorie-rich drink, we tend not to reduce our intake of solid foods 6. This means that soft drinks are very easy to overindulge in, which results in too much calories consumed with regard to daily need – it causes weight gain in the long term! In conclusion, it’s a good idea to leave out soft drinks from our diet or only consume them occasionally, keeping in mind their high sugar and calorie content. Instead, non-sugary alternatives are a better choice.
Healthy carbs with Wellness by Oriflame
Ever since the beginning, Wellness by Oriflame has focused on healthy carbohydrates with dietary fibre from natural sources.
You can find healthy carbs in our:
• Natural Balance Bars (berry)
• Natural Balance Shakes
• Natural Balance Soups
The new delicious Natural Balance Bar with berries has an improved formula with less sugar and fat and more protein and dietary fibre. The dietary fibre comes from natural plant sources, FOS (fructooligosaccharides) and polydextrose. FOS is a prebiotic fibre, providing “food” for the good bacteria in the gut, to help maintain a healthy gut environment. So, now you can indulge in a guilt-free snacking in a convenient way. Always carry one with you!
Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates. You need them, especially for your brain and performance! Just make sure you choose the healthier option.
 Abrahamsson. L et.al. Näringslära för högskolan. 6th ed. 2013
 Jeukendrup. A. et.al. Sport Nutrition – An Introduction to Energy Production and Performance. 2d ed. 2010
 Nordic Council of Ministers. Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2012. 5th ed. 2014
 International Olympic Committee. International Consensus on Nutrition in Sports. Journal of Sports Science. 2011
 Reynolds. A et.al. Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. The Lancet, Volume 393, Issue 10170, 434 - 445
 DiMeglio DP, Mattes RD. Liquid versus solid carbohydrate: effects on food intake and body weight. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2000; 24: 794-800.