Macronutrient.  It is a big word for the class of chemical elements that provide calories. They are macro (big) because they provide the bulk of the energy. smart carbsThere are three different macronutrients-carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each of the nutrients are broken down into smaller elements. Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars, designated by -ose ending such as sucrose, lactose, fructose, galactose, maltose, etc. Proteins are broken down into amino acids such as arginine and glutamine; and fats are broken down into fatty acids.  However, this post will focus on carbohydrates specifically.


Carbohydrates have been getting a lot of attention lately. The biggest questions are:

  • What are carbohydrates?
  • Where are carbohydrates found?
  • Do I really need carbs?
  • If so, how much should I have and which ones are the best?

Carbohydrates are defined as a large (macro) molecule composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but more importantly they are found in many foods. Carbs are often referred to as saccharides and come in 4 categories-monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides-depending on the size of the molecule. They are also referred to as sugars because they get metabolized into sugar in the body. More specifically, carbs get metabolized into glucose, which is what nearly every cell in the body uses as energy.

smart carbsCarbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods. I like to think of the term carbohydrate as being an umbrella term, where lots of other foods fall under in specific categories. Carbs are found in varying degrees in all fruits, vegetables, grains, animal milk (cow, goat, sheep’s milk all have carbs, however alternative milks such as almond, coconut, and hemp are very low in carbs), and of course sugar. So with this list, it is difficult to be carb-free (although not impossible) and it is safe to say that the body needs carbohydrates, at least to some extent. However, being smart about the carbs that you eat is the key to success.

When it comes to carbs we need to pay attention to the quality of carbs you choose.  Quality of carbs can be divided into smart carbs and junk carbs, and there are some that fall somewhere inbetween there. A smart carb is one that is a whole food source that doesn’t cause a rapid rise in blood sugar (click here to read Blood Sugar: The Balancing Act). On the contrary, junk carbs have been processed, removing any nutritional value that it may have started with.

Smart Carbs

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Junk Carbs

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{Click here to download the table in PDF format}

These foods are all on a spectrum. For instance, a quinoa pasta is a healthier alternative to enriched white pasta, but it is still not a smart way to get carbs. Rice crackers may be better than Ritz or Wheat Thins, but still offer no nutrition. Fresh bakery bread with no preservatives may be  healthier, but it is not nutrient dense. So rather than seeing this as doom and gloom, consider finding ways to replace the processed foods you love with a smarter alternative that mimics the foods you are used to. Zucchini or kelp noodles and kale chips are great examples to start. We are all in the same journey to health and we all take different routes to get there. Sometimes we can change by leaps and bounds, but sometimes it’s baby steps. Once you have the knowledge, it’s all worth the change.