What is a Carbohydrate?

I’ve gotta watch my carbs.

I’m cycling my carbs.

I only eat good carbs.

Low carb diet.

Are carbs good for you?

Are carbs bad for you?

Is <insert food> a carb? 



People that work professionally in nutrition, and even people that dabble in nutrition as a hobby can have a tendency to take their own vocabulary for granted. Words such as “macronutrient” and “carbohydrate” mean something to us because we write and talk in those terms daily. But, to a casual observer, or to a person that doesn’t really dive that deep into nutrition science, those terms may have no meaning, or at the very best, a blurred meaning.

When trying to share knowledge, it is important to try and strip away the jargon, and speak in a vocabulary that has meaning for both people. So, in other words, if you want to have a discussion with a person about why they should be trying to monitor their carbohydrate intake, you better take a moment and calibrate. DOES THE PERSON KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN BY THE WORD CARBOHYDRATE?


What exactly is a carbohydrate?

From a nutrition standpoint, a carbohydrate is one of three “macronutrients” that the body uses for energy. The three macronutrients are:

  • Fat
  • Protein
  • Carbohydrates


From a more technical standpoint…

carb definition

thanks Dictionary.com


So, for the most part, a carbohydrate is one of potentially many compounds in the food we eat. Therefore, it’s more accurate to say something HAS carbs rather than saying it IS A CARB (even though this has become all the rage over the years). Your dietary strategy should center around eating foods that HAVE good (beneficial) carbs. If you are a Primal, Paleo, Atkins, or Keto style eater, your dietary strategy focuses on minimizing foods that HAVE carbs.

Carbohydrates are classified by their chemical structure:

complex carbs

  • Monosaccharides (simple sugar)
    • These are the simplest of the sugars from a chemical standpoint (glucose, fructose, galactose)
      • Glucose is the sugar in your blood
  • Disaccharides (simple sugar)
    • These are two carbohydrates linked together that will eventually break down into monosaccharides (sucrose, lactose, maltose)
      • Lactose is the sugar found in milk
  • Polysaccharides
    • These are MANY monosaccharides linked together. They are also known as complex carbohydrates.
      • These are your starch and fiber
        • Fiber is good for you, and something you need in your diet
          • Fiber (for the most part) isn’t a factor in terms of impacting your blood sugar. Soluble fiber combines with water to create a “gel” that helps move things along in your digestion. Insoluble fiber just adds bulk to your stools so you can pass them. Neither is digested, and just goes to the colon.
  • Oligosaccharides
    • These are special guys that fall somewhere between mono and disaccharides. They are made up of anywhere between 3 and 10 monosaccharides.
      • They are special because nearly 90% of an oligosaccharide escapes digestion – it just goes right into the colon and acts as a prebiotic. In a nutshell, prebiotics are GREAT for your gut biome because they feed your gut bacteria.

As you can see, “carbohydrates” is a pretty big terminology and covers a lot. To blanketly say that all carbohydrates are bad and completely demonize them is irresponsible. As with anything in health and nutrition, you want to isolate what is good/beneficial, and use that for your overall plan. For me personally, I aim to consume the absolute minimum in terms of the simple sugars, but do make sure I incorporate fiber (as a polysaccharide) and oligosaccharides for their prebiotic properties.


Okay – I know stuff HAS carbs in it – now what?

First – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “carb” and “sugar” are interchangeable terms. They are not. Sugar is a subset of carb.

Next, become a food label reader. That is how you are going to answer a majority of your food/carb questions. If you don’t have access to the food label, assume it has carbs in it if the food item has sugar, has fiber, has starch, or, in general, came from a grain of some type. But, if you do have access to the nutrition facts label, take a good hard look.

This is a great resource on reading food labels for carbs. The following image is courtesy of their site.

carb label.JPG

The first key to food label reading is to note the serving size. That is usually at the top. This is an important fact to know because all of the values that follow are for a single serving. So, as you can see in the example above, a single serving is 3 pieces, and that gets you 2 grams of sugar. If you were to eat 6 pieces (2 servings), you’d get 4 grams of sugar.

The next step is to understand what numbers to pay attention to, if you are trying to control your carbs. There is a terminology known as “net carbs” which basically takes the total carb count, and subtracts the dietary fiber. The reason you can “subtract” the dietary fiber is because it has little to no impact on your blood sugar. It is mostly indigestible and goes to your colon. In the above example, this food has 30g of carbs, but zero grams of dietary fiber. So, 30 minus 0 = 30. This food would have 30 grams of carbs for you to consider in your dietary plan. 

Let’s take that a step further. Of those 30 grams of carbs you are considering, 2 grams are sugar. For the purposes of nutrition fact labels, that “sugar” is your simple sugar (the mono and disaccharides we talked about earlier). I know what you are thinking, “…okay, you just told me that I need to consider 30 grams of carbs, but then you said only 2 grams are sugar….WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER 28 GRAMS???” Good question.

The remaining carbs are most likely the starch (a polysaccharide), and/or some type of sugar alcohol (minimal to no blood sugar impact) or oligosaccharide (minimal to no blood sugar impact).

This is an area where the nutrition facts label really lets you down.

The fact is that not all starches behave the same. Some end up as glucose after they break down into monosaccharides. But, there are some that are known as “resistant starches.” These guys have much less of an affect on blood sugar, and they behave like soluble fiber meaning they don’t get digested and head to the colon to feed your gut bacteria (a good thing). Since these aspects aren’t specifically called out on the label, you can’t quantify them accurately. Therefore, for the purposes of carb counting, you should stick with your “net carb” number. BUT, now that you know about resistant starches, you should Google some examples, and try to work them into your diet.


What role should carbohydrates play in my nutrition plan?

I won’t say “no role.”

I’ll say “some” role. How much of a “star” or “co-star” is your call.

As we said before, carbs are one of the three macronutrients that your body can use for energy. How many or how little carbs you consume is based on your nutritional plan. This is a very personal choice for you. It needs to be a decision made by you (or your doctor if you are in treatment for some type of metabolic condition). Nowadays, it almost feels like choosing a nutritional plan can be as controversial as declaring a religion or political party.

Everyone has an agenda, and everyone is going to be a zealous advocate for their nutritional choice (just like they are for their religious or political affiliation).

On this site, I promote a high fat and low carb lifestyle. Its an approach that has worked for me, and I’m very comfortable with the research that I’ve done to reinforce that decision. Please note that I said RESEARCH. I realized that what I was doing wasn’t working for me, and what the mainstream advice suggested wasn’t working for me either. That forced me to find out what other people do. To fall down the rabbit hole, if you will. I experimented. I read. I learned as much as I could. I finally settled on an approach that made sense to me, and put me in a position to achieve my goals. I am very pleased with the results to date.

I strongly encourage people to take control of their own nutrition “journey” and read some books. Read some articles. Read some blogs. Do some Google searches. Find an approach to eating that makes sense to you. Make sure it allows you to have a healthy relationship with food. Do not just take one person’s word as gospel. Try to find the counter arguments, and then, see if your approach still holds up to scrutiny. The only way that a person will convert a “diet” into a true “lifestyle” is if the approach connects with them. You can only make that connection if you do the work and learn about it. Anything else will probably be short term, temporary, and frustrating.


Where do you fall in the spectrum on the great carb debate? Please let us know in the comments below. If you enjoyed this post, please be sure to “like” and “share.” Thank you.


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