Carbohydrates come in all shapes and sizes, from the bagel you ate at breakfast to the apple you crunched on as a midday snack to the chocolate chip cookie you savored for dessert. Most carbohydrates, except fiber, are ultimately broken down into sugars, and these sugars are responsible for giving you the energy your body needs to power through your day.
Carbohydrates can be broken down into two categories based on their chemical structure: simple and complex. A simple carbohydrate is like a penny -- you can’t break it down into smaller change. Your body doesn't have to work as hard to break down a simple sugar because it’s already in its most basic form. Simple carbohydrates include sugar added to desserts and those found in fruits and milk, just to name a few. While it’s best to avoid simple sugars found in desserts and high-calorie drinks because they have little nutritional value, milk and fruits have vitamins, minerals and calcium that are good for your health.
If simple carbohydrates are a penny, complex carbohydrates are a nickel, dime or dollar. They can come in lots of shapes and sizes and some have complex structures that take time for your body to break down. Complex carbohydrates can have hundreds of sugars linked together, according to Western Kentucky University. A lot of the complex carbohydrates in your diet come in the form of starches, including bread, crackers, pasta and rice. Because the structure of complex carbohydrates is more complicated, your body takes longer to break them down into blood sugar. This is why complex carbohydrates are considered preferable to simple sugars: You have a steadier stream of energy released in your bloodstream to keep your blood sugar levels from skyrocketing.
When your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, the glucose enters your bloodstream from your liver. If your cells need extra energy, they will absorb the glucose and start to use it for their functions. The digested glucose that remains unused can go several places. The liver is the first, because it can store glucose for later use in case you are in need of some extra energy. Once your liver’s glucose storage capacity is met, the remainder is converted into fat for use at a later time. But if you continue to eat too many carbohydrates, a later time doesn’t always happen and you’re left with extra fat that can be harmful to your health. That’s why it’s important to eat the right amount of carbohydrates.
While two carbohydrate types are broken down, one carbohydrate group is not: dietary fiber. This nutrient passes through your body without being broken down into small sugars. While fiber may not be an energy source for you, it does help to prevent unpleasant health conditions such as constipation because it absorbs water in your digestive tract, adding bulk to your stool. One of the two types of fiber, soluble fiber, helps to control your blood sugar by delaying stomach emptying. This effect gives you a steady stream of energy. Examples of fiber-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Rachel Nall began writing in 2003. She is a former managing editor for custom health publications, including physician journals. She has written for The Associated Press and "Jezebel," "Charleston," "Chatter" and "Reach" magazines. Nall is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Tennessee.