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Wellness Friday with Maria Kasdagly from MAKwellness

Maria Kasdagly is our guest editor today to talk about wellness. Check back each Friday to learn more from Maria. 

Carbohydrates 101:  What are Carbohydrates, Part One

In MAKwellness
By:  Maria Kasdagly

Poor carbohydrates–they have had such a bad reputation over the years.  One day they are bad and we must avoid them at all costs, and the next day they are greatest thing ever created.  With all the latest fad diets out there, no wonder we are all so confused on what to eat!  My goal in the six part series on carbohydrates is to decode the scientific truths behind healthful and harmful carbohydrates and how you can implement healthy carbohydrates into your diet.  Before we dive into the fascinating science of carbs, we must first understand the basics of this molecule.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, along with fats and proteins, are one of the three main classes of food or macronutrients.  They are necessary for the digestion and assimilation of other foods.  They help regulate protein and fat metabolism, and fats require carbohydrates to be broken down in the liver.  Carbohydrates are organic compounds consisting of sugars, starches and fiber.

Carbohydrates are made by plants during photosynthesis and are stored in the plants as sugars, or saccharides.  They are primarily used for energy in the human body, but if it is not used in short order, it is stored.  The liver and muscles can store a certain amount of carbohydrates as glycogen and the rest is stored as fat.

Three Main Types of Carbohydrates: 

Monosaccharides and Disaccharides (Simple Carbohydrate/Sugar):

  • Monosaccharides are the simplest form of carbohydrates, meaning they cannot be reduced into a smaller sugar.  They are the building blocks for other complex sugars/carbohydrates.  Glucose, fructose, and galactose are the main monosaccharides.
  • Disaccharides are a combination of two monosaccharides joined together.  For example, lactose (milk sugar) is made up of glucose + galactose and sucrose (table sugar) is made up of glucose + fructose.  Side note:  Lactose Intolerance occurs when people lack the enzyme needed to break down lactose into it’s monosaccharide building blocks.


“Oligo” means few, so oligosaccharides means a few monosaccharides combined together.  Typically, carbohydrates with 3-10 monosaccharides fall into this category.  The three main types are raffinose, stachyose, and verbacose, which can be found in beans, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, and other vegetables, and whole grains.  Human digestive enzymes are unable to break them down, but the bacteria within the intestine can digest them.  Recently, oligosaccharides are most noted as “prebiotics”- food for our gut microflora (beneficial bacteria).

More on oligosaccharides, prebiotics, and colon health in part 3.

Polysaccharides (Complex Carbohydrate/Sugar)

Polysaccharides are made up of longer chains of monosaccharides, and some even have branches.  Their configurations have a lot to do with how they are digested.

  • Starch is the most common digestible polysaccharide in plants.  It is the major glycemic carbohydrate in foods–meaning amount of glucose in the blood determinant–and its nutritional property is related to its rate and extent of digestion and absorption in the small intestine. Starches can be classified as rapidly digestible starch (RDS), slowly digestible starch (SDS), and resistant starch (RS).

  More about starch in part 4 of this series.

  • Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. Like we discussed earlier, most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, however, fiber cannot be broken down into sugar molecules. Instead it passes through the body undigested. Fiber helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check.

More on fiber in part 5 of this series.

Next week we will finish this 6-part series on Carbohydrates.  Take a peek below to see what is to come!

Carbohydrates 101 Series:

  1. What are Carbohydrates 
  2. Whole-Wheat May Actually be White Bread with a Tan
  3. Oligosaccharides, Prebiotics, and Colon Health
  4. Starches:  Why Not All Starches are Created Equal
  5. Fiber as a Super Food
  6. Why a High Carbohydrate Diet May Benefit You

References:  Gropper, S. S., Smith, J. L., Groff, J. L. (2008) Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.