The truth behind carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for the body. The Health Council recommends that if you want to live healthy, you need to get 40% to 70% of your energy from carbohydrates. Here we explain the types of carbohydrates there are, what the functions of carbohydrates are and how you combine sports with the right carbohydrate intake.

Carbohydrates are mainly in cereal products such as bread, rice and pasta, but also in potatoes and legumes. Carbohydrates are also called sugars or saccharides.

Types of carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are the monosaccharaides and disaccharides; complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides which include starch and fibres. The digestive system cleaves all carbohydrates into small absorbable pieces of sugar.

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These smallest absorbable sugars are called monosaccharaides. Glucose is the best known type of monosaccharide. Many cells in your body get glucose from the food that enters your body, such as bread, pasta or rice. Glucose can also be ingested directly, and is then called dextrose or grape sugar. Subsequently, tissues absorb the glucose where it can be burned. This gives your body energy. Other monosaccharaides such as fructose and galactose are converted to glucose by the liver, so that your body also extracts energy from these sugars. The hormones insulin and glucagon keep the blood glucose level at the right level. Too low or too high glucose levels are not good for your body. With a shortage of glucose, the body makes glucose from amino acids (protein) or glycerol (fat). This is not good because these proteins and fats are needed by your body for other things.

The burning of glucose occurs in the cell. This process takes place in two steps. First, certain enzymes break down glucose to pyruvate or lactate (lactic acid). This step is called glycolysis. Subsequently, these substances are further degraded so that energy is generated for the functioning of the body. For this part of the process, also called the citric acid cycle, oxygen is needed. One gram of carbohydrates supplies 4 kilocalories of energy.


Among disaccharides are carbohydrates like maltose, sucrose and lactose. Sucrose is found in fruit, biscuits and fruit juices. Maltose consists of two glucose molecules connected to each other, and this can, for example, be found in beer. Lactose is found in dairy products like milk, yogurt and cottage cheese.


Polysaccharides are starch and nutrient fibres and consist of multiple linked molecules of glucose. Nutrient fibres are indigestible forms of carbohydrates; which means that the body cannot extract energy from them. However, fibres are essential for the body because they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes and improve your stool. Adult men need between 30 and 40 grams of fibre a day; women only need between 20 and 30 grams of fibre a day. You can find fibre in whole grain products, fruits, vegetables and for example oatmeal.

Then there is another distinction to be made between fast and slow carbohydrates. Fast carbohydrates can be found in, for example, cake, candy, white rice, fries and sugary soft drinks. Slow carbohydrates are slowly absorbed into the body and ensure a longer satiation. Low-carbohydrate products include vegetables, lean yogurt, fruit and whole wheat products such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat paste or brown rice. When you eat this, you will be hungry less quickly.

Functions of carbohydrates


Carbohydrates are an important fuel for the body. One gram of glucose yields 4 kcal for example. Some important tissues in your body can only get energy from glucose. It is, for example, the energy source of red blood cells and the brain’s main source of energy. If you do not get enough glucose, you can feel weak and even faint. You cannot function physically without carbohydrates.

Inhibition of protein breakdown

Normally, proteins are used as body building materials. These proteins, for example, build up new muscles, repair damaged cells and make sure you grow. However, when you get too little carbohydrates (for example, because of a strict diet), this can cause the body to use the protein stock to make glucose. This breaks down muscle tissues and uses it to give energy to the body. This should be avoided, because you do not want your muscle mass to be at the expense of your dieting.

Burning fat

Carbohydrates are also needed when burning fat. Certain substances from carbohydrates are needed in order to burn fat when working out0.


The Glycaemic Index (GI) is an indicator that indicates how fast the level of glucose in the blood increases after ingestion of a certain type of carbohydrate. Glucose has a GI of 100. When you ingest a lot of nutrients with a high GI, your pancreas will produce insulin to give to the blood. Insulin is needed to ensure that glucose can enter the cell. If your blood glucose increases a lot and you move little, this increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. This is due to the fact that your body then needs to make so much insulin to let the glucose in the cells, that your body cells become immune to insulin. Therefore, a diet that is rich in whole-grain products, vegetables and fresh fruit is better for the body because it will keep you more sensitive to insulin. When you ingest this type of foods and combine it with exercising, you lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Exercising and carbohydrates

To exercise, need carbohydrates, but it is often not necessary to ingest them during sports too. This is only advisable when you exercise intensively for more than one hour. It’s best to ingest carbohydrates during sports through isotonic sports drinks. Per hour of exercise, it’s recommended to drink one litre of an isotonic sports drink. The longer your effort, the more fat you burn. This happens because your body’s glycogen stores run out.

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