Carbohydrates in Food. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Every week or so I want to go back to basics and provide information that is often forgotten about as we forge ahead with fascinating research.  We were not taught nutrition at school and too often articles (and blog posts) are pretty advanced, forgetting most people are trying to figure this all out themselves.

Carbohydrates in Food

I had a uber-successful businessman come to my nutrition office in  Santa Monica.  He asked if there were any carbohydrates in eggs

I had the teenager on her way to Yale ask if she could use bread for her protein

I had the overworked lady who didn’t have the time to cook but knew she had to eat more vegetables.  Wanting to do better she had a green juice every day – with50 grms of carbohydrates in it

None of these people were stupid, they were actually trying to make their health a priority with the little information they had gathered.  So back to basics we go.  Last week I posted about Protein, if you missed the post here it  is /

If you like this post it is an extract from a book that should be available by the end of this year, comments always welcome


carbohydrates what you need to knw
Carbohydrates what yu need to know


If you are numb from the last two macronutrients, hold on as the ride is about to change.  If there’s one macronutrient we are expected to understand beyond all others, it is carbohydrates. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight in the last ten years, you will have tried to limit your carbohydrate intake. I would suggest that most of the people trying to cut their carbohydrates have no idea why.

The conversation goes something like this

Q           Why don’t you eat carbohydrates?

A           “They make me fat” or

A          “The make me bloated” or

A          “My body is super sensitive to carbs”

Q          Why is that?

A          ……. ?

I almost called this book “Beyond the second Why” because few understand their relationship with carbohydrates beyond that guttural first response

If you are paying someone money for their nutritional guidance and they can’t answer beyond the second why then please ask for your money back and run away.

The weight loss industry is terrible for this.  They tell people “Don’t eat carbs”, sell them products but don’t explain a thing!

People who tried to lose weight in the 1970’s were terrified of calories. Anyone trying to lose weight today is terrified of carbohydrates.  The sadness is when they succumb to the calories or binge on the carbs that person feels terrible about themselves. Self-loathing creeps in which leads to feelings of failure and defeat.

I had a client, a successful guy whose weight continually went up and down.  He lost weight by counting calories and starving himself.  He would ask how many calories we had burned in a workout so that he could estimate his calories perfectly, intake and output.  I met with him for nutrition many times and created meal plans yet. Still, every year he would starve himself down the scale and then rebound right back up.

One day I asked him about his fascination with calories, and he told me that years previously he had had a trainer who was in incredible shape. This trainer had told my client that he just made sure he didn’t ever eat more than 1500 calories per day.  This little gem had stuck with my client.  It made sense; the information came from a credible source and a source that my client could relate to (male, about the same age, and with a physique my guy admired).

A little hurt that my hours of teaching had been ignored due to a one-liner from another trainer,  I asked my client when he had been told this. “Over twenty years ago” he replied.  He had held on to this comment about calories per day for over two decades!  He had tried and failed for over twenty years to limit his daily calorie intake, and overall he was getting heavier and heavier with each passing year.


I saw how to break the belief my client had formed about fat loss.  When he told me that the comment had been made over twenty years, I told my client that I would have likely given him the same advice… twenty years ago.

I suggested that if he contacted that trainer today he would not be given the same answer.

This (at long last) struck a chord.  We spent time discussing nutrition and weight loss again, but this time my client was present and receptive.  He immediately started dropping weight without starving himself. Today he is 30lb lighter, and he has sustained this new weight for more than two years.

My point here is that I ask you to put on hold any beliefs you have about weight loss and, especially for this next section, about carbohydrates.

I will also say that carbohydrates can make you fat, but that is like saying a brick will break your toe; it will, but only if you drop the brick on your toe.  If you eat carbohydrates mindfully, they serve a great purpose as the primary fuel source for your body. If you treat them mindlessly, they are most certainly the one macronutrient that will pack on pounds and add inches.



Carbohydrates are your rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, cereal, candy bar, cake and pastries, your noodles, fries and tortilla chips as well as your fruit and vegetables. They never come from an animal source, and most of those mentioned are not natural carbohydrates; rather, they are products made from naturally occurring carbohydrates.

There are many words used interchangeably to talk about a carbohydrate; sugar, monosaccharide, disaccharide, glucose, glycogen, fiber, carbs and net carbs.  Let’s unravel this before we go any further.

A “sugar” is a carbohydrate that can dissolve in water. You can recognize a sugar because it will end in “ose.”  Food labels may say dextrose, sucralose, maltose, xylose and, of course, high fructose corn syrup, but it all means “sugar”

Carbohydrates are made up of single sugar molecules (a molecule is just a small particle made up of atoms).

A single sugar molecule has six carbon atoms and is called a monosaccharide (mono meaning one, saccharide meaning sugar).

Monosaccharide, therefore, means one sugar particle, so they are often referred to as “Simple Sugars”



Fructose – sugars found in fruit

Galactose – sugars found in mammals’ milk

Glucose – you’ll hear the word glucose a lot; this is because glucose is the form of sugar your body can use for fuel

When you eat carbohydrates, they have to be broken down into single units of sugar – monosaccharides – before they can enter the blood.


In chemistry, the prefix “di” is used to denote two, double or twice.  When talking about carbohydrates, a disaccharide is simply two monosaccharides.


Sucrose = glucose + fructose (your table sugars, sugar cane, the carbs in fruit and vegetables)

Lactose = glucose + galactose (found in milk and dairy produce)

Maltose = glucose + glucose (barley, “Malt” sugar)

Disaccharides, because they are made of two monosaccharides, still have to be broken down into the single units of glucose before they can be used.  Some people have difficulty breaking down milk sugar lactose and suffer discomfort, gas and bloating as a result. We would say that these people are “lactose intolerant”.



“Oligo” means “few” so oligosaccharides are three to ten monosaccharides (single sugars) joined together in a chain.

A carbohydrate chain has to be broken down into individual units of glucose before it can be used.  Part of the oligosaccharide chain cannot be broken and remains undigested.  The undigested part has been found to provide healthy bacteria in the colon and reduce the number of unhealthy gut bacteria.

Slightly sweet to the taste, this carbohydrate is gaining interest as a “functional food”. It is found in plants, vegetables, breast milk and especially in chicory root, onions, legumes, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes.  Expect to hear more about oligosaccharides as the marketing madness catches wind of something new to shake in your face.  It’s a great sounding word which will make it sound very interesting and complex.

Carbohydrates are chains of sugar and oligosaccharides are longer than the two-piece chain of a disaccharide but not as long as a polysaccharide.



You are probably noticing the progression; mono (one) di (two) oligo (few) and now poly meaning “many”. These chains have more than ten parts to them and can be very long.

The shorter chained carbohydrates are sweeter whereas the polysaccharides are tasteless and, because of a great many bonds/links in their chains, they do not dissolve in water. This is why we sweeten our tea with honey, not broccoli.  Honey (glucose+ fructose = disaccharide, sweet and soluble) Broccoli (Polysaccharide, not at all sweet and won’t do much of anything in your tea).

May you have heard of “starchy” carbohydrates? You may have been told to stay away from “starches”. Well, starches are one type of polysaccharides.  They are long chains of glucose found in root vegetables, potatoes, and cereals.  Starchy foods include rice, bread, and pasta, making starch the most popular polysaccharide.

Cellulose is found in the structure of plants. We know it better as fiber. We cannot break down its bonds, and therefore we cannot digest it.  Animals, however, can break down and digest cellulose, which is why horses eat hay and we probably shouldn’t.

Pectin is a polysaccharide found in plant roots and fruits. Apples are the best-known source of pectin.  In water, it forms a gel and can be used as a setting agent or a glaze. It is popular among vegans as an alternative to the animal-based gelatin.

Pectin is used for jams and jellies. It is a stabilizer which is also found in bread and even your cornflakes.Naturally, pectin is found in all fruits, especially apples, apricots, grapefruits, and oranges. Pectin is also found in vegetables especially colorful carrots and tomatoes.

Sources of pectin are popular because, as a type of soluble fiber, pectin slows the passage of food thereby slowing the release of glucose into your blood. This is a good thing.


The final polysaccharide we will discuss is glycogen. If you work out you may be familiar with the terms; glycogen, glycogen storage, glycogen uptake, glycogen depletion.  These fancy terms simply refer

Carbohydrates are all “sugar” and “sugar” is not a bad word.

Carbohydrates are energy foods that come from the sun hitting a plant.

Carbohydrates can be formed underground, above ground or even up to a tree.

Carbohydrates can be long or short chains of sugar units. The longer chains are called “complex, ” and the shorter chains are called “simple”.

All chains are broken down into single units of glucose which enter the blood stream and can be used as fuel immediately or stored as future fuel.


to the storage form of glucose. We can store the carbohydrates that we eat in our muscles.


Glycogen is found in our muscles, liver and brain.  When carbohydrates are broken down into single units of glucose they can then enter the blood.  From the blood, glucose can be used for immediate fuel or it can be stored for future fuel.  Glucose stored in muscle, the liver or the brain is called glycogen. We have about a day’s worth of fuel stored as glycogen.

There are a great many confusing terms that basically describe the same thing. We hear about simple sugars and starches; we talk about complex carbs and glucose. Fructose is demonized, and yet honey is idolized.  Sugar is to be avoided, and we are told to stick to the “good” carbohydrates, yet now we know that all carbohydrates are sugar. It all gets very confusing.


So where does fiber fit in?  We are told to eat more of it in the form of vegetables and whole grains.  “Whole grains” is another term thrown around with cheerful abandon, conjuring up a picture of a “wholesome” hunk of unsliced bread.  Just for the record, you don’t have to eat any grains to get enough fiber in your day.

Food cannot enter the blood stream in the form in which it lies on your plate.  We don’t have a piece of chicken or a bagel floating around in our blood.  Food is broken down by the digestive system into a absorbable/usable form:-

Protein is broken down into amino acids.

Fat is broken down into fatty acids.


Carbohydrates are broken down into single units of glucose.


Fiber, in contrast, is not broken down and if something we eat cannot be broken down it is not digested and therefore not absorbed into our bloodstream.


Although fiber never enters our blood it has huge health benefits. When we think of bacteria we think of invisible dirt coating innocent surfaces. It lurks on grocery cart handles, in bathroom stalls and on gym equipment.  We avoid it, wiping down that grocery cart, carefully placing seat covers on a public toilet and wearing gloves and carrying towels in the gym. Our body however is full of bacteria. We have more bacterial than we do human cells. We are talking hundreds of different types, and trillions of cells in total. There is both good and bad bacteria, so we focus on not picking up the bad stuff that makes us sick.

There are plenty of good bacteria, mostly living in our guts. Think of your “gut” as your digestive tract, or simply whether the food goes after you eat it.  It goes to your stomach and then on to your small intestine, into your large intestine and then exits your body.

Just as we need to eat to survive, so do cells and bacteria.  Cells are fed when the food that we eat is digested and absorbed into our bloodstream, after which nutrients can travel to cells. This is where fiber enters the story.  Fiber cannot be digested because our gut does not have the necessary enzymes to break it down – that’s why we need bacteria.

Fiber passes through the stomach and the small intestine unchanged. When it reaches the large intestine bacteria will get to work breaking it down and feeding upon it.  This is how fiber works as a “prebiotic”.

Prebiotics are the food for probiotics and probiotics are the good bacteria we were talking about in the first place.


These probiotics (good bacteria) are associated with a great many health benefits. Fiber feeds good bacteria in the gut and this is a very good thing.  What is not so great is the bloating and gas it can create.  When bacteria feed on fiber it produces gas. And it is this gas that can cause bloating and it is this gas that embarrasses women and turns men into seven-year-old boys.

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber dissolves in water and becomes gel-like.  This is the fiber that expands our stomach by dragging in the water and creating more bulk.  Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water.  Most foods that contain fiber will have both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Fiber does not enter our bloodstream. Its purpose lies with intestinal health.  As a ballpark we should aim to eat 30-40g of fiber per day.

Fiber travels straight through our body doing a lot of good deeds along the way but it never enters our blood stream.

The mono, di, oligo and polysaccharides do end up in the blood and can be used as fuel or can be placed in storage.


Carbohydrates start getting broken down with our first bite. The saliva in our mouth has enzymes that start the process, and give us that sweet tasting delight of the first bite.  The carbohydrates travel down your esophagus (throat area) into your stomach and on to your small intestine.  It is here in the small intestine (duodenum) that they really get acted upon, by pancreatic amylase.  The pancreas is positioned near the small intestine and enzymes travel from the pancreas to the small intestine to aid in digestion.

How the carbohydrate started off – maybe it was a bagel, the carbs in a candy bar or a sandwich – it is now in the form of monosaccharides; the single units of sugar that pass through the wall of the small intestine and enter our blood.

Once in the blood we can call these carbohydrates “blood sugar” or “blood glucose”. They travel in the blood to the liver.  The liver processes and then repackages or eliminates anything you ate or drank (this includes medications and alcohol) before sending it back into the general blood supply via the hepatic vein.


As you understand the journey of food, you can see how that journey is affected by health.  If we have digestive issues affecting the small intestine, or pancreatic issues affecting the enzymes and hormones it releases, or a liver disease, food can become a problem for the body instead of effective nourishment.

If you have a food allergy then you know all too well how this feels.  Let’s say you are lactose intolerant and are not able to digest dairy:  it really doesn’t matter how healthy that raw unpasteurized $10-a-carton organic cream is, it will pass through you undigested, doing you no good and causing hours of discomfort

Protein and fat have numerous functions, from making hormones, enzymes and muscles to protecting cells and our network of nerves.  Carbohydrates, on the other hand, have one main job to do; fuel the body, brain, nervous system and red blood cells that carry the all-important oxygen.

How much carbohydrate can be stored in our muscles is limited by how much lean body mass we have, thankfully yet bittersweet is the unlimited capacity for excess carbohydrates to be taken via the liver and stored in fat cells




The carbohydrates not immediately used for fuel can be stored as ‘glycogen’.  The liver can store a little bit of glycogen but, although the liver is quite a large organ and a big hitter in the organ world, it really doesn’t like to store much glycogen, maybe a few hundred calories.  However, what we really rely on for glycogen storage is our muscles.

The more muscle we have, the more carbohydrates we can store as glycogen.  That might mean a thousand or several thousand calories worth of carbohydrates,  depending on how much muscle you have.  How much we store in muscles also depends on how active the muscle is; conditioned athletes having the ability to store a lot more glycogen than most people.

Beware: once carbohydrates enter a muscle they remain there until that muscle uses that ‘glycogen’ as energy.  This is critical if you want to lose weight.  If you find yourself sedentary for any reason you will not deplete your muscles’ glycogen stores.  If you eat an excess of carbohydrates, the muscles stores will max out and those carbohydrates will show up as body fat.

Dealing with this fact depends on circumstance. If, for example, you are sick in the hospital you may need carbohydrates to heal, so you cannot just cut them out.  By contrast, if you’re on vacation, resting your butt on a beach lounger for a week, you may want to reconsider that dessert they are offering you. If your muscles are not active then that desert is going straight to that thing you’re sitting on.

  • There is a limit to how many carbohydrates can be stored in muscle.
  • Stored carbohydrates are called Glycogen
  • Glycogen will only fuel the muscle it is in. It is only liver glycogen that can help that travel and fuel the rest of the body.

With this in mind, consider the concept of “carbing up”. An age-old practice of eating huge amounts of carbohydrates before and event.  As the story goes this will give you energy and fuel.

If you can only store X amount of carbohydrates, what is the point of eating 10 x that amount? Where is the excess meant to go?  I’ll give you one guess.

Over the years I have met with many clients who came to see me because they gained weight getting ready for an endurance event. The amount of carbohydrates they were told to eat is always the reason why.



Carbohydrates are transported into muscle by the hormone Insulin.  When we eat a high carbohydrate meal our blood sugar increases and triggers Insulin.  The body dislikes high levels of sugar in the blood and its Insulins job to get rid of it.  When blood sugar is high Insulin will not only transport the carbohydrates out of our blood but it will also lock fat in our fat cells.  It makes good sense that insulin traps one source of fuel while it deals with an abundance of another.

When we are working out insulin in inhibited which also makes good sense as we want to keep carbohydrates in the blood to travel to the muscles being used.  Glut4 is the transporter that takes sugar from the blood to the working muscles while we are exercising.  When the muscle is dormant Glut4 is not active and we rely again on Insulin to remove sugar from the blood.  The kicker here is that it takes a “boat load” of insulin to get carbohydrates into a known active muscle. If Insulin cant get the carbohydrates into the muscle where does it end up?  In fat cells.

I’m sure you’ve heard the Old Wives Tale

“Don’t eat before bedtime”

They should be saying

“Don’t eat carbohydrates at night”

The most relaxed part of the day for most people is the evening.  Sitting on the couch watching TV or trolling social media.  Not the ideal time to order pizza or to eat cookies or pasta.  Your muscles are rested and it would take a lot of insulin to get any of those carbs into your inactive muscles.  If the carbs cannot go into muscle they will end up in fat.

If you do eat enough carbohydrates to illicit a huge insulin response insulin will do its job and trap fat in the fat cell.


If you’re trying to lose weight skip the carbs at night and stick to protein, fat and vegetables. If you’re working out at night then you can disregard the Old Wives Tale altogether because your muscles are active and receptive and ready to store more carbohydrates.


The carbohydrates your muscles store are actually the fuel you need for your next workout, which brings me on to another gem.

“Eat before your workout to fuel your workout”

You wake up and have a hearty carb-rich breakfast in preparation for your workout.

The fear is if you don’t have that breakfast you won’t have the energy or strength to get through your training session.

Knowing what you know now does it make sense to have that breakfast?  You just woke up so the muscles are not active, they are not primed to take on those pancakes but not to worry, your fat cells will oblige.

I suggested skipping breakfast to a dear cardiologist friend of mine who trains in the morning.  He dropped 15 lb

In the summer of 2010 a gentleman came to see me at my nutrition office in Santa Monica and he was pretty upset as he had just dedicated six months of his life to transforming himself from (his words) “a lifelong coach potato” into a man who ran the LA Marathon.  He ran with a running group and had a goal to raise money for a charity close to his heart and also to lose the weight he had been gaining since he turned 40.

He completed the marathon, raised the money and gained ten pounds.

He sat in my office furious, accusatory, even though this was my first time meeting him.  He left the office understanding why he had gained weight and with a plan to correct it. His coaches had encouraged that hearty breakfast and a heavy carb diet.  He was still furious but at least it was no longer directed at me.  I think he was heading straight to the running club that had told him to eat bagels and bananas for breakfast.

Please know even the most well-intentioned coach or exercise instructor may be giving outdated advice.  I once attended a running certification course where everyone there was a running coach.  During the two-day course the nutritional advice given was to have your clients “eat well”. I nearly fell off my chair.  What does that mean “Eat well?”

Many people join running groups to lose weight.  This advice will not move them towards that goal.  I must add that that weekend course was catered with Gatorade, bagels, bananas, subway and granola bars.


Another gentleman came to see me in the fall of 2015.  He had lost a lot of weight, over 80 pounds, and he had kept the weight off for five years until he suffered an injury and had to greatly limit his exercise.  I asked him how he had lost weight originally and he said from becoming very active and watching his portion size.  This was a guy who had hiked every local elevation possible, in between grueling ultramarathons.  He lost weight not because his nutrition was the best (it was not) but because he was exercise reliant and continually in a state of muscle glycogen depletion.  He was continually depleting the glycogen stored in his muscles so that he always had storage room for the carbohydrates he was still over-consuming. When he got injured the exercise stopped and on came the weight. He had quickly regained almost all 80 pounds.

When you have somebody with that sort of discipline it’s an easy fix.  We simply restructured the way he ate his macronutrients and he started to lose weight again.  A few months later his injuries had all healed and he was back to his intense workouts, but this time he wasn’t relying on excessive exercise to keep him in shape.

In the 1970s we focused on calories if we wanted to lose weight. In the 1980s we focused on fat-free foods. In the 90s we started to learn more about the role of carbohydrates and body composition. It’s all got obsessive, confusing and contradictory prioritizing the calories, the fat grams or the carbohydrates and now, as we barrel towards 2020, we are becoming fearful of meat.  There are very real concerns about how animals are fed and treated and we are entering and an era of conscious and ethical living, but more of that anon.

One thought on “Carbohydrates in Food. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”

  1. I am on a two hour train journey and this has kept me glued to my phone screen. Another good, informative read, Joanne.

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