What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, also known as saccharides. Sugars are used by our bodies as fuel to provide energy to our muscles, brain and nerves. Carbohydrates contain oxygen, carbon and hydrogen

Cereals, potatoes, fruits, vegetables, bread and grains all contain carbohydrates.

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Types of carbohydrates

There are two main types of carbohydrates:

Simple carbohydrates

Monosaccharides - are made up of one sugar. 

Disaccharides - are made up of two sugars.


Complex carbohydrates

Oligosaccharides - are short chains of saccharides, usually 3-6 monosaccharides.

Polysaccharides - are long chains of saccharides.


How do our bodies use carbohydrates?

When we eat foods rich in carbohydrates, the food has to be broken down into a simple sugar called glucose. The glucose is then absorbed into the blood.

Once glucose is in the blood, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps move the glucose from the blood carrying it to the cells where it can be used for energy. Excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, as an energy reserve.

Simple sugars found in sweets, white bread, cakes and fruit, make the blood sugar levels go up quickly, giving us quick bursts of energy. But this energy is soon used up, meaning our blood sugar levels drop down again, sometimes even lower than before! When this happens we feel hungry again. 

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Complex sugars found in brown rice, vegetables and legumes are broken down slowly, they don’t make the sugar in our blood rise as quickly and instead, give us energy for longer periods of time. 


Interesting facts

  • The word saccharide comes from the Greek word ‘sakkharon’ which means sugar.
  • Glucose is needed by plants to grow, make flowers and develop fruit.
  • It’s possible to live off very little carbohydrates, some cultures eat hardly any carbohydrates at all. That’s because the body can convert proteins into carbohydrates.
  • Most carbohydrates contain an atom ratio of 2 hydrogens for every 1 oxygen, that’s the same ratio as water (H20).
  • Carbohydrates make up 2-3% of the average person’s body mass.