Nutrition: What Are Carbohydrates And How Healthy Are They?

They are considered a no-go when it comes to losing weight – but are all carbohydrates really fatteners? Find out what carbohydrates actually are and which bad carbs you should avoid here.

The topic of carbohydrates is on everyone’s lips these days: Some love the “carbs” in their everyday foods pasta, bread, and potatoes, and can’t imagine life “without” them at all – others decry carbohydrates as an unnecessary fattener and look for ways to avoid them or at least reduce the daily amount in their diet.

We tell you everything you need to know about carbohydrates, the advantages and disadvantages, carbohydrate alternatives, and recipes that do without carbohydrates as far as possible.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are the main energy supplier of our body and driver for the work of our brain. Like protein and fat, carbohydrates belong to the so-called macronutrients and form the largest part of our diet.

What do carbohydrates consist of?

Carbohydrates – also called saccharides – consist of sugar molecules. They are converted into glucose in the body, more precisely in the gastrointestinal tract, and then used by the body as energy. Interesting fact: compared to fat, carbohydrates have less than half the calories while providing the same amount of energy to the body.

What is the function of carbohydrates?

Unlike fats, carbohydrates can be utilized by our body relatively quickly and are therefore an indispensable energy component of our diet. Most of the carbohydrate energy is used for our body’s basal metabolic rate (breathing, heartbeat, metabolism, brain activity & more).

Without them, it would be much more difficult for us to adequately meet these highly important energy needs. Carbohydrates are by far the brain’s most important source of energy. A study by Tufts University (USA) showed that people who completely avoided carbohydrates performed worse in memory tests. The intestines and skin also use carbohydrates as an energy source.

How many calories do you need per day? Calculate this with our calorie calculator

Where are carbohydrates?

Large suppliers of carbohydrates are various types of grain from which we make food – for example, wheat, rye, oats, rice, and corn.

Consequently, many carbohydrates are in bread, pasta, cakes, etc. Among legumes, lentils, peas, and beans are important suppliers of carbohydrates.

Important: Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grain products also contain valuable dietary fiber – i.e. particularly long-chain carbohydrates that have many positive effects on the body!

Are there different types of carbohydrates?

Depending on the number of sugar building blocks, carbohydrates are divided into three groups:

  • Simple sugars (monosaccharides): The best known and most important are glucose (found in grapes, for example) and fructose (found in most fruits).
  • Dual sugars (disaccharides): These include household sugars, malt sugars, and milk sugars. Monosaccharides and disaccharides are mainly found in sweets and soft drinks. They taste sweet, but with the exception of fruit, they are for the most part mere energy sources that contain hardly any vitamins or minerals and cause blood sugar levels to shoot up quickly. This promotes cravings. Monosaccharides and disaccharides are sweet and water-soluble.
  • Multiple sugars (polysaccharides): The most important polysaccharide is starch (e.g., in potatoes). However, polysaccharides are also found in cereals, whole-grain products, and legumes. Polysaccharides are tasteless and not soluble in water.

What are complex carbohydrates?

Complex carbohydrates with multiple sugars – such as those from whole-grain products or potatoes – are sustainable. Their molecular structure is longer than that of simple sugars.

As a result, the body needs more time to break them down and obtain energy from them: This keeps blood sugar levels more constant and satisfies better! It also curbs cravings.

What is our need for carbohydrates?

The German Nutrition Society (DGE) still says: In a normal diet, about 50 percent of the calories consumed should come from carbohydrates.

For years, however, the DGE also explicitly recommended eating plenty of carbohydrates – in the latest update of its 10 golden nutrition guidelines in fall 2017, this passage quietly disappeared!

Whether carbohydrates make you fat, however, depends on the energy balance of the entire day. Also at what time of day you eat them can have an impact on your figure.

How long do carbohydrates keep you full?

How long carbohydrates make you feel full depends primarily on their glycemic index – also known as glyx. This determines how quickly they are digested into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream. The higher the glycemic index, the faster and higher the blood sugar level rises – and the faster it falls again afterward.

The result: cravings overtake us. In general, foods with a value of more than 70 are considered unfavorable, while those with a value of less than 50 are considered good. Example: Raw carrots, for example, have a Glyx of 30 – popcorn already 85.

Scientists at Tel Aviv University used a special detection method to study the processes in the arteries that take place before, during, and after eating mostly sweet foods with high Glyx.

The result: If food with a high glycemic index (Glyx), such as cornflakes (Glyx up to 84) or a lot of sugar (Glyx 70), was on the plate of the test subjects, there were functional disturbances in the cell layers of the vessel walls, which in the long term promote heart disease.

Do carbohydrates make you fat?

People gain weight from food in different ways: Firstly, by eating more fat than they consume – this then accumulates in the fatty tissue.

The other is when they consume a lot of carbohydrates. The body converts them into glycogen, which is then stored in the liver and muscle cells. When these stores are full, it turns the excess into fat, which is deposited in the adipose tissue.

How effectively the body does this depends on the SCD-1 gene in the liver – the less of it you have, the better.

Means translated: One person gains weight from and with carbohydrates faster than another. And very lucky ones again not at all! Especially since a new study from 2018 claims to have found out that you can lose weight precisely with noodles instead of other carbohydrates.

When should you eat carbohydrates?

Nutritionists recommend cooking only dishes without carbohydrates after 5 pm (realistically, that is, with very little or few carbohydrates – also called low carb). The low-carb cookbook can help find inspiration for delicious and healthy recipes.

The popular sausage roll in the evening or a nice pasta with a rich sauce can go straight to the hips in the evening.

This is because the pancreas produces the hormone insulin to break down carbohydrates in the evening. Insulin, in turn, causes the blood sugar level to fluctuate in an unfavorable manner – and consequently inhibits the burning of fat, which should actually be running at full speed overnight. You can find more information on this topic in our focus on slimming while you sleep.

Recipes without carbohydrates in the evening, on the other hand, keep insulin levels in the body low so that the growth hormone somatotropin can become active.

Why somatotropin helps against obesity: On the one hand, the hormone keeps blood sugar levels stable, and on the other, it reduces fat and also builds muscle – and those with more muscle mass consume more calories even at rest.

  • Tempting: If you consistently eat without carbohydrates in the evening, you can lose up to two kilos a month!
    However, this only works with an overall negative energy balance – which means that more calories are consumed throughout the day than you eat.

Eating as much of everything as you want and only cutting back in the evening doesn’t work – the “total package” has to be right! The nutritional concept ketogenic diet also largely avoids carbohydrates.

How do you prevent carbohydrates from making you fat?

Out of habit, many people also find it difficult to simply discard the classic “evening meal” and switch to dishes without carbohydrates.

To start with, you can simply start with two to three evenings a week on which you eat no carbohydrates in the evening and instead switch to well-satiating protein – possibly also in the form of a protein shake.

Alternatives to bread are fish, lean meat, tofu, salad, quark, and cheese. Be careful with fruit: due to its high fructose content, it contains a lot of carbohydrates – better to replace it with vegetable sticks.

Carbohydrates are important sources of energy – our expert in the video interview and our sample table below will help you make your choice.

The very good carbohydrates from the foods in the left column make you full, but not fat; the “middle” ones you may consume moderately; you should rather keep your hands off the foods in the right column!

Why are carbohydrates important for athletes?

Does energy equal energy? Wrong thought! Proteins and carbohydrates have the same calories per gram, but they are metabolized quite differently by the body.

Carbohydrates are the muscle fuel for athletes. Obtaining energy purely from fat and protein would lead to a drop in performance during exercise because these nutrients cannot be metabolized as efficiently.

Sports physicians therefore also recommend basic everyday foods for amateur athletes that are rich in complex carbohydrates – these include muesli, potatoes, pasta, rice, or bread.

“Carbohydrate-rich foods are necessary for health and performance,” says nutritionist Anja Carlsohn of the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences.

How do athletes make the best use of carbohydrates?

If athletic performance is then directly required, “fast”, i.e. immediately available, energy is what counts.

“Carbohydrates still represent the decisive energy source in most sports,” says Prof. Christine Graf of the German Sport University Cologne. “Whether they come from corn, rice or wheat is of secondary importance. What’s important is the ratio.”

  • For the recreational endurance athlete, the sports physician recommends a ratio of two-thirds complex and one-third simple carbohydrates. So it doesn’t just have to be whole grain products.
  • For runners, for example, carbohydrates are the best source of energy! But they have to be the right ones at the right time – for maximum performance! The only disadvantage is that our body can only store about 370 (for the untrained) to 600 grams (for the trained) of carbohydrates in the form of glycogen. This amount is sufficient for intensive continuous exertion of 60 to 90 minutes, after which we need to refuel.

Good carbohydrates are found above all in durum wheat pasta prepared al dente. This is because they are digested slowly and ensure a constant blood sugar level – the performance level remains constant. Whole-grain products, vegetables (cooked al dente), cereal flakes, rice (parboiled or basmati), and dried fruit are also good sources.

About two hours before your workout, easily digestible carbohydrates in the form of a cereal-dairy mix are favorable.

On the other hand, soft-cooked pasta and potatoes, sweets, and white rice are unfavorable. They cause blood glucose levels to shoot up and then drop again quickly, which can lead to hypoglycemia during exercise (known as hunger pangs).

What is Carbo Loading good for?

It is not uncommon in competitive sports to rely on so-called carbo-loading. “In this process, the stores are first completely emptied through intensive training and then replenished over several days by consuming large amounts of carbohydrates,” says the physician.

“This super-compensation results in glycogen storage far above normal levels, and this has been demonstrated by muscle biopsies before and after carbo-loading.”

For amateurs, however, carbo-loading is relevant at best before special challenges such as a marathon or triathlon and should not be undertaken without sports medicine guidance.

“It’s not enough to immoderately fill your belly with pasta and oily sauce the night before,” Graf warns, “on the contrary, this can quickly lead to digestive problems, disturbed sleep, and corresponding drops in performance.”

What should you eat during exercise?

Your carbohydrate depots are well-filled? Then you can easily endure loads of up to one hour without eating. If the training session or competition lasts longer, you should start eating continuously (every 20 to 30 minutes) about an hour to an hour and a half after the start.

To avoid a drop in performance, 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour are recommended – a banana contains about 25 grams of carbohydrates.

But of course, specially formulated energy bars are also suitable. Important for the competition: Drink plenty of fluids (approx. 250 ml) and test your power snacks before a competition to see if they are digestible for you.

Food without carbohydrates

Foods without carbohydrates are those that contain less than one gram of usable carbohydrates per 100 grams of weight. There are many foods (almost) without carbohydrates, in our list we will tell you the most important ones:

You will find no or hardly any carbohydrates in

  • Fish and seafood without breading, shrimp, lobster, crabs, and mussels; meat and poultry in pure form (not processed such as cold cuts), eggs, hard and semi-hard cheese, green vegetables such as lettuce, cucumber, spinach, and chard; mineral water, unsweetened tea, light drinks.

You can find low carbohydrates in

  • Mascarpone, processed cheese, Camembert, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, avocado, kale, citrus fruits, berries, guavas, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, buttermilk, kefir, broccoli, tomatoes, onions.
    Some carbohydrates, on the other hand, are found in root vegetables such as potatoes and sweet potatoes. Most fruits contain fructose and thus often also some carbohydrates. Strawberries, grapefruit, apricots, oranges, and raspberries, among others, have low levels.

In contrast, root vegetables such as potatoes and sweet potatoes contain some carbohydrates. Most types of fruit contain fructose and thus often also some carbohydrates. Low levels are found in strawberries, grapefruit, apricots, oranges, and raspberries, among others.

The best recipes without carbohydrates

Recipes without carbohydrates are rich in protein and also contain a little fat – but it does not work completely without carbohydrates.

Our body urgently needs them during the day to supply the brain and muscles with energy. Besides, most foods contain at least a small amount of carbohydrates anyway.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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