The Essential Guide to Carbohydrates (and Why You Should be Eating Them)
We’ve created the ultimate guide to carbohydrates to answer the many questions people have about this essential macro.
This handbook will tell you everything you need to know about carbohydrates, including the latest scientific research, good vs. bad carbohydrates, sources of this essential macronutrient, meal and snack suggestions, and tips on how to create the perfect balance as part of a healthy macro-friendly diet!
It’s time to eliminate those negative connotations surrounding carbs and promote a more sustainable, healthy, and balanced diet.
Click on a section below to get started!
What are they, why are they important, good vs. bad carbohydrates, how many you should be eating, carbohydrate macro ratio, etc.
Vegan foods/ingredients with high levels of healthy carbohydrates.
Yummy and balanced meal and snack suggestions for an optimal macro-friendly diet.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrate is the nutritional category for sugars and molecules that can be broken down into sugars. In other words, carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in our food.
Carbohydrates are 1 of 3 macronutrients (macros) that our bodies require in large quantities from our diets. The other 2 macros are protein and fat.
Check out our Ultimate Macros Guide to learn more about all 3 macronutrients, the IIFYM lifestyle, and to use our calorie, protein, fat, and carbohydrate calculator.
What are carbohydrates made from?
Carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules, otherwise known as simple sugars, or monosaccharides. These include glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Monosaccharides can be linked together to form disaccharides, which include lactose, maltose, and sucrose.
Monosaccharides and disaccharides are known as simple carbohydrates.
When 3 or more sugars are linked together, they form complex carbohydrates:
- 3-10 sugars = oligosaccharides
- 10+ sugars = polysaccharides
Starch and fiber are both polysaccharides (read on to find out more).
Sound complicated? This wonderfully clear animation explains it all:
Simple vs. complex carbohydrates: what’s the difference?
Complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugar molecules and simple carbohydrates are short chains. Complex carbs take longer for the body to digest, making them a more sustainable source of energy.
Foods often contain both simple and complex carbs and there is a lot of debate surrounding which type is best for us. Nevertheless, it is agreed that, as carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, complex carbs are more effective for this function. Despite this, there are several nutritious foods that contain simple carbs, which are not necessarily bad for us.
Perhaps, more importantly, we should focus on the overall nutritional value of food rather than simply concentrating on simple vs. complex.
What are the 3 types of carbohydrates found in food?
1. Sugar (simple carbohydrates)
Free sugars are found naturally in plants but are often accompanied by starch and fiber, which help to package these for healthier digestion. However, these can also be found freely in syrups and are often added to edible products, including soda, chocolate, candy, and other processed foods.
What’s more, blending fruit and vegetables into smoothies can break down some of the fibers, allowing for quicker digestion and a more pronounced increase in blood sugar levels.
Starches are polysaccharides (made from 10 or more sugars) and are found in plant-based foods, such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, etc. The long chains take the digestive system a while to break down and so they gradually release energy for longer periods of time compared to simple carbohydrates.
Fiber is also a polysaccharide and is found in the cell walls of plants. Therefore, this important carbohydrate can be sourced from fruits, vegetables, pulses, and wholegrain foods.
Fiber isn’t digested by the body and reaches your colon intact, where some of it ferments to feed the good bacteria living in the gut.
Furthermore, fiber slows down your digestive system, stabilizing your body’s blood sugar levels and keeping you fuller for longer - great for weight loss!
Why are carbohydrates important?
The importance of carbohydrates is significant and crucial for our health for a number of reasons, not least because they are the body’s main source of energy. Without it, the body would break down protein and fat, which are also essential for keeping us fit and healthy.
What’s more, carbohydrates are a great source of fiber, and foods that contain them often comprise of other vital nutrients, including calcium, vitamins, and iron.
What are the 4 main functions of carbohydrates?
The body can use any of the 3 macronutrients for energy but its preferred source is carbohydrate. In a process called cellular respiration, dietary carbohydrates are converted into ATP, a molecule used by the body for fuel. What’s more, carbohydrates can be stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver for later use.
2. Digestive Health
Fiber, a complex carbohydrate, is essential for gut health. The two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, reduce constipation, regulate bowel movements, protect against digestive tract disease, and feed the bacteria residing in the gut!
After intensive exercise, consuming carbohydrates will increase glucose and insulin levels in the blood and subsequently support the body to quickly resynthesize glycogen and aid recovery.
4. Reduce Chronic Disease
Too much of anything is a bad thing but incorporating carbohydrates into a balanced, macro-friendly diet has a positive impact on overall health. Fiber can lower cholesterol and subsequent risk of heart disease and also has a positive impact on glycemic levels, which reduces the risk of diabetes.
Are carbohydrates good or bad for you?
As long as they are incorporated into a balanced and nutritionally-rich diet, carbohydrates are very good for you! As a macronutrient, they are essential for the body’s health and effective functioning.
Read the above answers for more information on why this macro is so important for our health and well-being.
How many calories per gram of carbohydrate?
Carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram
How much carbohydrate should I eat?
The USDA and FDA recommend that carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of your diet.
As part of the macro lifestyle, it is generally recommended to stick to the lower percentages of that range. At Macro Nation, we suggest the following macro ratio:
Carbohydrates = 45%
Protein = 30%
Fat = 25%
Our favorite fun fact about carbohydrates
They help you poop!
2. Sources of Carbohydrates
Below are some of our favorite sources of healthy carbohydrates.
For ideas on how to incorporate these high carbohydrate foods into macro-friendly meals, then check out our plant-based macro meal plans!
Quinoa is a high carbohydrate food. Once cooked, it weighs in at 21.3% carbohydrate and is a great source of complex carbs, including fiber! It’s also a fantastic source of protein and other essential nutrients. Oh, and it’s a gluten-free source of carbohydrates!
Not only do these taste amazing but sweet potatoes have high levels of healthy carbohydrates. They contain sugar, starch, and fiber, as well as several vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
We can’t talk about high carbohydrate food without mentioning oats. These bad boys are 66% carb, 11% of which is fiber! What’s more, they contain oat beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that is proven to considerably lower cholesterol levels. Not to mention the minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants they provide. Often available gluten-free!
Super fruit! They even wear a cape...of sorts. 23% carbs and, depending on how ripe they are, in the form of both sugars and starches. Bananas are another example of high carbohydrate foods that contain other important nutrients, such as potassium and vitamins B6 & C. In their unripe state, the high levels of pectin and resistant starch promote a healthy digestive system.
We can’t get enough of these nifty beans! 27.4% carbs, of which 8% are fiber. Full of vegan protein and other essential vitamins and minerals, chickpeas are so versatile! In fact, they’re so awesome we use them as one of the main ingredients in our delicious gluten-free Macro Snack Chips!
Other Great Carbohydrate Sources
Here are some more high carbohydrate foods with lots of fiber:
3. Healthy Carbohydrate Meals and Snacks
Check out our meal plans for macro-friendly dishes that perfectly balance carbohydrates with protein and healthy fats:
Or visit our Best Macro-Friendly Snacks blog for suggestions on which foods to eat while on-the-go, categorized according to carbohydrate, protein, and fat content.
Or try out some of these great recipes for high-carbohydrate meals and snacks:
Deliciously Ella’s Red Pepper & Tahini Quinoa
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More easy lunch ideas for this week 🌱 Peppers, tossed with quinoa, fresh parsley, toasted almonds and greens, drizzled with all the tahini, chilli flakes and a little lemon juice ❤️ Part of the app easy lunch section, link in our bio 😘 • 100g quinoa • 1 yellow bell pepper, cut into small pieces no larger than 1cm • 1 red bell pepper, cut into small pieces no larger than 1cm • Handful of fresh parsley, chopped • Handful of roasted almonds, chopped • Handful of sunflower seeds • Large handful of fresh rocket • Drizzle of olive oil • Juice of 1 lemon • 1 tablespoon of smooth tahini • Salt • Pepper • Chilli flakes Cook the quinoa according to the instructions on the pack. Once cooked, drain and place into a large mixing bowl. Add the diced peppers, chopped parsley, roasted almonds, sunflower seeds, rocket and mix well. Squeeze in the lemon juice and add a drizzle of olive oil, the tahini, a large pinch of salt and pepper, mix well until everything is coated in the dressing ingredients. Spoon the salad into two bowls and top with another pinch of pepper and some chilli flakes.
Fruit Animal Toast
Blueberries and bananas on wholemeal toast are a great way of increasing your healthy carb intake!
Rabbit and Wolves’ Roasted Garlic, Mushroom, and Barley Stew
Barley is another high carbohydrate food that is full of soluble fiber and plant-based protein (8 essential amino acids)!
Last Ingredient’s Chickpea & Spinach Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
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Chickpea Spinach Stuffed Sweet Potatoes 🌱 Picture and recipe by @lastingredient Recipe: Serves 4 4 medium sweet potatoes 1-15 ounce can chickpeas 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper plus more for serving 1/2 teaspoon cumin 1 cup baby spinach, roughly chopped 2 tablespoons tahini Flaky sea salt for serving Crushed red pepper flakes for serving INSTRUCTIONS Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Prick the sweet potatoes with a fork and roast for 45-55 minutes until they are just tender. Let the sweet potatoes cool for 5-10 minutes before halving them lengthwise and fluffing their flesh with a fork. While the sweet potatoes are roasting, make the crispy chickpeas. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Pat them dry with paper towels. Remove any loose outer skins. In a small bowl, toss the chickpeas with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and cumin. Spread them in a single layer on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan. Bake for 25 – 35 minutes until crisp and browned, gently shaking the pan about halfway through cooking. While the sweet potatoes and chickpeas are roasting, heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Sauté the spinach until the leaves start to wilt, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and remaining salt and pepper, and continue cooking until fragrant, about 1 minute. Top each of the sweet potato halves with chickpeas and spinach. Drizzle with tahini and sprinkle with flaky sea salt and red pepper flakes before serving. . . . #veganfoodlovers #veganiseasy #veganslimmingworld #veganfoodporn #cleaneatingrecipe #vegetarianslimmingworld #healthyvegan #cleaneatingdiet #veganmayo #veganparty #eatplantsnotanimals #veggieday #lazyvegan #veganessen #veganpancakes #veganforthem #plantfueled #veganlifestyle #veganinspo #eatyourveggies #veganchallenge #veganrecipies #veganburger #comidavegana #veganporn #veganramen #veganbreakfast #vegansalad