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What are carbohydrates? What’s considered a low carb diet? What are complex carbs? Welcome to carbohydrates 101! In this post, I answer all of your burning questions about this important macronutrient.

what are carbs?

Hi there! My name is Chantal, and I’m the owner of Ironwild Fitness. I’m also a mom, certified personal trainer, and recovering carb-o-holic. Welcome!

On top of being a fitness blogger, I’m also a trainer working on my nutrition coaching certification. Because of that, I wanted to talk more about this site and carbs in general. 

First of all, I don’t want you to have the misconception that I’m anti-carbs. That’s not the case. I would actually describe myself as “pro-carb-education.” 🙂

While a lot of people can benefit from a low-carb diet, I don’t really agree with extreme keto diets and whatnot. There are so many misconceptions around the topic of carbs, the keto diet, and low-carb living. Carbs get a bad rap, but mostly because people misunderstand them. 

So today I want to dispel a few myths about carbs and really dive into the facts. Then you’ll understand more about what I do here and why I occasionally share some carb-loaded recipes! I’m going to do my best to explain carbs as someone who isn’t a nutritionist or food scientist, so buckle up!

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of three basic macronutrients that all humans need for a well-functioning body. (Macronutrients are the three major nutrients that we need in large quantities, whereas micronutrients are needed in small quantities.) They are a top nutrient needed for energy!

Carbohydrates are needed for you body’s short-term energy stores, and can be quickly turned into energy for immediate use. When not used up, carbohydrates ultimately get stored in the body. This is why, in surplus, carbs can often get blamed for weight gain. 

One misconception is that a food is only one type of nutrient. I see a lot of people asking, “What are good examples of carbs? What foods are carbs?” But the thing is that most foods have more than macronutrient, and pretty much all foods have more than one micronutrient type (vitamins and minerals). 

So while you can get some great foods that are “mostly” carbs, they are likely to be a source of protein or fats, too. Even if it’s in small amounts. It’s not as black-and-white as it seems. So keep that in mind while considering high-carb foods…they typically have other benefits!

Examples of great sources of carbohydrates include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Whole grain bread
  • Apples
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Pasta
  • Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Oatmeal

what are carbohydrates

Types of Carbs

Another thing that many people don’t know is that there are actually two different general types of carbohydrates. They are referred to as simple (or refined) and complex carbs. (Carbs are also sometimes referred to as sugars and starches. There are also other, more scientific classifications of carbs & subtypes, but for this purpose, we’ll just stick with simple and complex.)

The main difference between simple carbs and complex carbs is that they digest differently in the body. With simple carbs, the grains are already partially or fully processed. Typically, the processing of a grain removes the germ and bran from the kernel. (As in white bread vs. whole grain/wheat bread, where the good stuff is intact.)

Complex carbs typically have more fiber and nutrients since they haven’t been tampered with. This makes them digest more slowly, which also delivers energy differently. In short, complex carbs typically have more to offer, and as such, are considered healthier. Fiber is also known to help with digestion and feelings of satiation, so a high-fiber diet can help you stay fit. 

*Another thing to note is that refined carbs are often linked up with heavy added sugars and fats. You see this in pastries, candy bars, cakes, and other highly processed foods. 

While I could go on about the science about carbohydrates, just know that some definitely are healthier than others. When in doubt, choose unrefined carbohydrate sources if health is your priority. (Eg. brown rice vs. white rice.) 

Related Reading: Beginner List Of Good Fats To Eat

What are net carbs? 

You may see some recipes or products displaying the “net carbs” on the packaging or advertising. So what’s the deal with that? 

Net carbs is what’s leftover (in grams) once you subtract fiber and blood sugars. Essentially, it’s the difference between total carbs in a given food compared to the amount that the body will actually digest. 

While it is true that there are different types of carbs and they do digest a little differently, the term “net carbs” is really not something you need to pay attention to unless you’re on a strict low-carb diet. In fact, it is said that the term was coined by food companies trying to push sales on their products, and it’s really just a marketing ploy.

But this doesn’t mean that there are less carbs in a given food. It’s a bit more complex than that. Just remember that when you’re looking at carb content on your next protein bar!

What are net carbs?

Myth #1 About Carbs:

One of the biggest things people assume about carbs is that consuming them will cause you to gain weight. This is totally wrong. 

The truth is that consuming too many carbs (and the wrong types of carbs) will cause you to gain or retain weight. And, since many carbohydrates of the processed variety are loaded with sugars and unhealthy fats, gaining weight is easy if you eat the wrong kinds of carbs. This makes it super easy to associate carbs with unhealthy weight levels. 

Many people assume that the answer is to eliminate carbs!

The problem is that your body actually needs carbohydrates to function. Dropping your carb intake too low can have negative effects on your body. (This is why carb cycling is a good choice for people who are trying to lose weight.)

The fact is that carbs are necessary to function, but knowing about how to consume healthy carbs is key. 

Related Reading: Low Carb Diet Truth: Is It Really Best For Weight Loss?

Myth #2 Regarding Carbohydrates 

Another big misconception is that carbs. come from pastas, breads, crackers, and other foods with a flour/grain in them. 

The truth is that there is more than one kind of carbohydrate, and they are found in abundance in fruits and vegetables AS WELL AS grains. They are actually found in many food groups that don’t scream carbs. (Apples have a bunch of carbs!)

The thing is that simple vs. complex carbs are processed differently in the body, and deliver energy in different ways. So get the idea that breads and pastas are the main ways to consume carbs out of your brain. 

I point out these two main misconceptions because I want you to understand that this website isn’t about a total elimination diet. 

The problem with carbs isn’t that they are unhealthy. It’s that most people consume more carbohydrates than their body requires, and they choose carb sources that are also sugar and fat-laden. 

What is considered low carb? What about the keto diet?

My goal is not to help you with any extreme diets. I take issue with the keto diet because so many people have taken it way too far with fat. What people don’t understand is that there are four main types of fat, and two of them are really bad for you. (Trans and saturated fats.)

Many people who are doing a keto diet are consuming way too much UNHEALTHY fats, and it can contribute to or cause other health problems. 

My goal is to help you choose healthy carbohydrates, lower your overall carb intake, and help you choose healthier fat consumption. So you won’t always see super high-fat, extremely low carb recipes. You’ll see a healthy variety.

While I’m not a registered dietician or a doctor, I do have common sense and some experience in this area. Balance is still the key to everything. I truly believe that!

Before you run away looking for some hardcore keto blogger, let me ask you this. 

Have you ever worked out on a low-carb diet and felt dizzy or had low-energy?

Because I’m a personal trainer and I have learned to enjoy exercise, I have tested my endurance and energy levels on low-vs-high carb days. 

On days where my workouts were preceded by a whole-grain piece of toast or some rolled oats, my energy levels were amazing. Compared to days where I only ate eggs or any other low-fat breakfast, I had more power, more energy, and more stamina. 

Here’s the deal: Carbohydrates are meant for immediate energy. When you eat carbs, they are used for energy right away. So if you eat some and then exercise, you’ll end up burning it. 

Related Reading: What To Eat Before A Dirt Bike Race

But if you eat some carbs and then have a sedentary day, your body will store them as fat. 

Your body needs carbs for bursts of energy, but if you don’t use them up, they’ll just get stored. 

(This is why carb-cycling is a thing. And why a lot of athletes and gym rats can’t really afford a low-carb diet.)

So. Remember. Carbs are your friend, if you know how to treat them. They are necessary. 

Hopefully by now, you feel more confident if ever asked, “What are carbohydrates?”

This knowledge will hopefully help you make better food decisions and choose your carbs in a more mindful manner. 

Have anything to add? Questions? Drop them in a comment below!

-Chantal 

Still need help? Read this article about healthy, high-carb food sources!

What are good carbs?