Demystifying carbohydrates: 5 facts you need to know

Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of the three main food groups. And despite being constantly linked to the global obesity epidemic, did you know they’re one of the critical points of good nutrition? Learn five facts that will help you demystify the carbohydrate.

#1 It’s our primary source of energy

Carbohydrates are the primary fuel used by our body as a source of energy, including for exercise! Therefore, a deficient diet can result in fatigue and irritability and impair children’s development and growth¹.

#2 Carbohydrates can be simple or complex – and that’s a significant difference

Simple carbohydrates (glucose, fructose, sucrose, and lactose) are formed by simple sugars or a pair of them, being smaller in size and, therefore, usually digested and absorbed in the intestine more quickly – which can result in blood glucose and insulin peaks in the body. They are present in table sugar, honey, milk and fruit sugar, soft drinks, candy, and sweets.

Complex carbohydrates (starch) are formed by simple carbohydrates and are present in rice, pasta, bread, potato, cassava, and even in vegetables²,³.

#3 Carbohydrates are an important source of fiber

The fibers present in foods are carbohydrates that cannot be digested in the intestine and are fermented and eliminated in the feces. Foods rich in fiber are vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, and beans².

These fibers play an essential role in the body, contributing to the maintenance of gastrointestinal functions, increasing satiety, and modulating the absorption of cholesterol and glucose present in foods more slowly – preventing a rapid increase in blood sugar (blood glucose).

#4 We need carbohydrates

Carbohydrates should be part of our daily diet in adequate amounts, even in the case of diabetics or those who are looking to lose weight. National and international guidelines recommend that the number of carbohydrates ingested should correspond to 45 – 60% of the total energy we ingest (4).

One of the reasons for this is that, besides providing energy, carbohydrate-containing foods are vehicles for essential micronutrients and bioactive compounds¹. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, and cereals are examples of foods containing carbohydrates and significant amounts of vitamins and minerals, necessary for the proper functioning of our body, as they perform vital functions in the cells and tissues of the human body²,³.


#5 Not banning carbohydrates from the diet is a good idea

There is evidence that shows the benefits of reducing the carbohydrate content in diabetic individuals. Still, it depends on the strategy adopted, which must be individualized and monitored by a specialized professional, such as the nutritionist, as cutting carbohydrates can result in inadequate consumption of fibers and essential vitamins and minerals (4,5). One study showed that weight loss was achieved with a low-calorie diet, regardless of the strategy adopted (carbohydrate restriction vs. fat restriction) (6).

Of course, excessive consumption of carbohydrates and low nutritional quality is harmful to health. It increases the risk of developing chronic non-communicable diseases such as dyslipidemia, hepatic steatosis (fat in the liver), and diabetes.

Did you like this article? It was prepared from information organized by Ana Claudia Zanini, a scientific analyst at Prodiet. Follow our blog!

1. FAO/WHO. Food and Agriculture Organization/ World Health Organization. Carbohydrates in human nutrition: report of a Joint FAO/WHO expert consultation, Food and Nutrition Paper, 1998, 66, Rome, 140 p.
2. Mahan LK, Raymond JL. Krause Alimentos, Nutrição e Dietoterapia. 14ª edição, Elsevier Brasil, 2018.
Seyffarth ASM et al. Manual de Nutrição para Profissionais de Saúde. São Paulo: SBD. 2009. Available at: .
4. Costa e Forti A et al. Diretrizes da Sociedade Brasileira de Diabetes 2019-2020. São Paulo: Editora Clannad; 2019.
5. American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes-2021. Diabetes Care. 2021;44(1).
6. Gardner CD et al. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018: 20;319(7):667-679.
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