The Carbohydrate Difference

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In the last few years, thanks to a resurgence of Atkins Dieting, there has been a lot of focus on the term “good carb, bad carb.” In reality, this oversimplistic view really isn’t true. A carbohydrate is a carbohydrate, no matter where it comes from. If it’s a carbohydrate, what it does in your body is break down into sugar, which the body then absorbs into cells and uses for energy (your brain, for example, is a sugar-hungry hog).

The difference actually comes in how quickly this carbohydrate is absorbed into the cells, and the hormonal reactions your body has in order to get it into said cell.

Let’s take two very different carbohydrates, brown sugar versus broccoli. Brown sugar is sugar molecules in its most simplistic form (in fact, most brown sugars are just simple table sugars coated with molasses, but I digress). Broccoli not only has the sugar molecules, but it also has fiber, which makes the body have to work in order to get to the sugar molecules. Hence, the body takes longer to absorb the broccoli sugar than the brown sugar.

Now, when a certain level of sugar enters the blood stream (which is the first place it goes after being absorbed through your small intestine), the body’s pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that ushers sugar into the cells. I like how Wikipedia puts it, which is a lot more fun to read than my nutrition textbook:

Insulin is a hormone that is central to regulating the energy and glucose metabolism in the body.

Insulin causes cells in the liver, muscle, and fat tissue to take up glucose from the blood, storing it as glycogen in the liver and muscle. Insulin stops the use of fat as an energy source. When insulin is absent (or low), glucose is not taken up by body cells, and the body begins to use fat as an energy source, for example, by transfer of lipids from adipose tissue to the liver for mobilization as an energy source. As its level is a central metabolic control mechanism, its status is also used as a control signal to other body systems (such as amino acid uptake by body cells). In addition, it has several other anabolic effects throughout the body.

Okay, so now we know that insulin is good for getting glycogen, but not so good for getting the body to burn fat. We also know that certain types of carbohydrates are going to cause more insulin to be released, more quickly, than others. This means that there are several different types/categories of carbohydrate.

First, I want to throw in the terms “starchy carbohydrate” and “fibrous carbohydrate.” A starchy carb is very similar to a simple carb in that it triggers the release of insulin, but it generally has some fiber so it’s not immediate. A starchy carb just has a higher ratio of simple carbohydrates (sugars) to fiber. A fibrous carb has a lower ratio of simple carbohydrates to fiber. Examples of starchy carbohydrates are potatoes, rice, oatmeal, corn, and cooked carrots. Examples of fibrous carbohydrates are broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, all types of lettuce and cabbage, and celery.

You’ll note that I didn’t put any fruits in either of those categories, because they typically don’t fit into either one. The sugar molecules in fruit are generally more complex than a simple sugar, and are thus called “fruit sugars.” The body has to take one more step in breaking a fruit sugar down before it is absorbed. This is the caveat: without the fiber contained in the fruit, fruit sugars are absorbed only slightly less quickly than simple sugars (this is why they use fruit juice for diabetics who have too low of blood sugar in their bodies). However, with the fiber, fruit sugar has a delay in the body that is similar to a starchy carbohydrate.

Then, last but not least, I want to talk about the carbohydrates contained in grains. There are even different types of grains, some of which cause a simple sugar-like release in insulin, and others which cause a fibrous carbohydrate-like release of insulin. This, again, has to do with fiber, but also with the quality of the grain.

The most popular grain in our diets is wheat. Flour, pastries, cakes, pizza crust, soups, pancakes, cereals, noodles, and bread all contain wheat. Quite often, it’s the hardest grain to avoid, and therefore, the one which has the highest intake. The science is still out on wheat, but it appears that its high intake is leading to many more cases of sensitivities than there used to be. Most wheat in people’s diets is refined and void of fiber, which means it’s just a simple sugar to the body. Whole wheat, ground, has some fiber, so begins to take on the characteristic of a starchy carb. Wheat berries, the most whole version of wheat, acts more like a fibrous carb (or isn’t even absorbed at all, but just moves through the intestinal tract). Because wheat is generally so refined and is in so many items, it’s often best to be conscious of just how much is actually eaten. Taking wheat out of your diet for even one week can open your eyes to how much you really do eat.

Other grains, like quinoa, take much longer to be absorbed. Much of this is because it literally does “stick” to the insides of your stomach, and takes a lot longer to enter the small intestine. While having this quality in white flour is not desirable (more because it sticks to the small intestine wall rather than the stomach wall, and is more fully absorbed- meaning more calories are absorbed), it is a desirable quality in the case of quinoa, oatmeal, and rice. Slowing the entrance of food into the small intestine helps you feel more full for longer.

Now that we know about several different types of carbohydrates: simple, fibrous, starchy, fruit, and grains, you may be asking yourself, “So what is the next step?”

The easiest thing to do is move fibrous carbs higher on the priority scale. The more fibrous carbs you take in, the more appetite decreases, the less calories overall are taken in, and the more vitamins and minerals are given to your body. People who eat a diet almost entirely composed of fibrous carbs have lower weights, better skin, stronger muscles, and a healthier digestive system. Starchy carbs and fruit carbs come next on the priority scale, and can be used to increase energy, refill depleted glycogen stores, and kill hunger cravings. After that comes grains, then simple carbs. If we were to look at this like it was a food pyramid, then fibrous carbs would be in big block letters on the bottom, starchy carbs and fruit carbs would be smaller above that, then grains, then simple carbs.

The Carbohydrate Pyramid

The more you follow the pyramid, the more you will see a lean, healthy body. Now go after some fibrous carbs!



  1. Carrannmor  April 12, 2010

    A large intake of refined carbohydrates can be detrimental to your health, but there are very few vegetables that are detrimental to your health (grocery stores don’t stock the poisonous ones). Most, in fact, will take your health to new heights. For some people, there are sensitivities to different foods (like wheat) that need to be taken into account, but otherwise, putting 80% of the focus on vegetables, and letting the rest follow the lower priority scale, works quite well for people.

    What does this mean? Moderation is key when it comes to anything that isn’t a veggie!

  2. Ronni Huttman  April 23, 2010

    Coconut oil is largely used as cooking oil also. The reason behind this is that it resists heat-induced damage and it is great for heart health. There are some more reasons also such as it keeps cholesterol level at normal position and also supports weight loss. Coconut oil is the best substitute of butter, olive oil, vegetable oil and margarine. In coconut oil you will find the most saturated fat than any other edible oil.

  3. burn belly fat  April 23, 2010

    Looking through your articles gives me a chance to remember why I like reading things with so much insight. It is nice to know that there are still great writers out there that can put humor into knowledgable information. Thank you for your input and eagerness to reveal your thoughts with us.

  4. Lenny Kinkella  December 8, 2010

    Thank you. I’m supposed to cook for my new vegan girlfriend next week and have no idea what to make! I found a ton of recipes at this vegetarian recipe site but with so mnay to choose from I just got confused. Do you have any recommendations, like .. the tastiest vegetarian recipe, ever, or something?! Thanks in advance! I hope it goes well