Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our bodies. They are made up of sugar molecules, which are broken down by the small intestine. Carbohydrates should account for around 45 to 55 per cent of our daily calorie intake.
Carbohydrates consist of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are made up of chains of sugar molecules, which vary in length. They are mainly found in plant-based foods. Carbohydrates are a source of energy – the fuel for our muscles and brain. The body transports them to all our cells via the bloodstream. Carbohydrates provide 4 kilocalories per gram.
In chemistry, carbohydrates are divided into four types, which contain different numbers of sugar components:
Mono- and disaccharides enter the bloodstream quickly and increase the release of insulin. This causes our blood sugar level to drop quickly, which, in turn, can trigger food cravings. However, foods with simple carbohydrates, such as fruit, are important because they contain vitamins and other valuable nutrients.
Carbohydrates consisting of three or more monosaccharide molecules have to be broken down by the body first before they can be digested. After that, they enter the bloodstream slowly and evenly. This means they keep you full for longer and do not cause insulin levels to spike. They provide the body with valuable fibre. Complex carbohydrates are mainly found in cereal products, pulses and vegetables.
The terms “carbs” and “carb-loading” are widely used, especially in the field of sports nutrition. “Carbs” is simply short for “carbohydrates”. Endurance athletes often eat large amounts of carbohydrates before competing in major events in order to improve their performance. This practice is known as “carb-loading” or “carbo-loading”.
Glucose, also known as dextrose, is only found in its free state in small amounts. It is contained in fruit and honey, for example. Glucose is often linked with other carbohydrates such as sucrose or lactose. The small intestine absorbs the glucose and transports it to the body cells. The glucose then supplies the cells with energy. Glucose is actually the only source of energy for the brain and red blood cells.
Fruit and honey naturally contain fructose. However, fructose is also added to soft drinks and yoghurt to sweeten them. When consumed in large amounts, it can sometimes cause flatulence and diarrhoea. The intestine can only absorb a limited amount of fructose.
Lactose is only found in breast milk and the milk of mammals. In the small intestine, an enzyme called lactase breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose. When someone is lactose intolerant, they don’t have enough lactase in their small intestine, or any whatsoever, meaning they are unable to break down lactose. This causes problems such as flatulence, stomach aches or diarrhoea.
Dietary fibre is also simply called “fibre”. The human body cannot digest it. That is to say, the small intestine cannot break it down and absorb it. It is broken down by intestinal bacteria. Fibre leaves you feeling more full and has a positive impact on blood sugar and insulin levels because it delays the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine. It also supports the gut flora and reduces the levels of lipids and cholesterol in the blood. The recommended daily fibre intake for adults is 30 g. Some good sources of fibre are wheat bran, flax seeds and chia seeds, white beans, soy meat, lentils and peas.
Sweeteners such as saccharin or aspartame are not carbohydrates. They are much sweeter than sucrose, but they provide little to no energy. They do not affect our blood sugar levels. Sugar substitutes such as sorbitol or xylitol, on the other hand, are carbohydrates. They are about as sweet as sucrose, but don’t have as much of an effect on blood sugar levels. You can use both sweeteners and sugar substitutes if you want to give up sugar. However, this won’t stop sugar cravings!
The body converts excess carbohydrates into fat and stores it in the liver, muscles and fatty tissue. The Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) and Swiss Society for Nutrition (SSN) therefore recommend that around 45 to 55 per cent of our daily calorie intake comes from carbohydrates. No more than 10 per cent of our energy should come from added sugar.
Our Health Consultation advisors will show you how to achieve a balanced and nutritious diet.
An example: 45 to 55 per cent of a daily intake of 2,000 calories would equate to 225 to 275 g of carbohydrates. No more than 50 g of these carbohydrates should come from added sugar.
There are 100 g of carbohydrates in:
There are 10 g of added sugar in:
Recommended sources of carbohydrates include cereals and cereal products (preferably whole grains), potatoes, fruit, vegetables and pulses. Food and drinks with added sugar should only be consumed occasionally. Examples of low-carbohydrate foods include fish, meat, dairy products, eggs, tofu and green vegetables.
The glycaemic index tells us how quickly the blood sugar level rises after consuming carbohydrate-rich foods. The lower the GI value, the healthier the food. Meals will normally have a low GI if:
However, the GI does not tell us how much carbohydrate food contains, meaning it cannot always be applied in practice.
The glycaemic load not only takes into account the type of carbohydrate, but also the food’s carbohydrate content. An example: Carrots have a similar GI to white bread. But their GL is significantly lower, as they have a lower carbohydrate content.
If we look at the content and type of the carbohydrate as well as its effect on blood sugar, we can see that carrots are the healthier option.
GI and GL values can provide some guidance when figuring out which carbohydrate-rich foods are suitable and which are not. However, these are not the only criteria for judging food. For example, they don’t tell us anything about low-carbohydrate foods. Just make sure you’re regularly eating foods with a low GI and a low GL. These include wholegrain bread, muesli without sugar, pulses and vegetables. This is in line with the general recommendations for a balanced diet.
Sarah Ehmer (Msc in Health Education) joined Helsana in 2019. As a health management specialist, she helps customers engage with prevention and health promotion. Sarah Ehmer gave the editorial team advice and input for this article.