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Sugars versus Carbohydrates: No more confusion!

“Are you feeling faint? You need a quick sugar fix then!” Does this sound familiar? Do you know what this quick sugar actually is and why it is called like this? If you have a look at food labels, which you have already been doing with great care, you will often find both carbohydrates and sugars there and sometimes also fibre. Carbohydrates are also known as saccharides, from the Latin word saccharum, which means sugar. Sounds confusing? I bet! So what is the difference between carbohydrates and sugars and why should you cut down on one of them when following a healthy diet?

Classification of carbohydrates

To put it simply, sugars are a subcategory of carbohydrates. There is more than one such subcategory. “Carbohydrates are classified according to the number of their basic sugar units,” explains specialist consultant Pavla Staňková whose research includes the study of a metabolic syndrome linked to obesity. Carbohydrates are divided into the following categories:

  •       Monosaccharides – they include glucose (grape sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar)
  •       Oligosaccharides – they are made up of 2-10 sugar units. The oligosaccharides with 2 sugar units are called disaccharides and include sucrose (table sugar), which is made up of glucose and fructose; maltose (malt sugar) and lactose (milk sugar), made up of glucose and galactose
  •       Polysaccharides – the number of sugar units can range from 11 to hundreds of thousands

All you need to know is that “of which sugars” on food labels refers to all monosaccharides and disaccharides, i.e. simple sugars (watch their content in your diet carefully) and that the rest are complex carbohydrates found under “Carbohydrates”. You will also often find a separate category of Fibre, which also belongs to carbohydrates.

Fibre – an essential part of a healthy diet

Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot digest and it is, therefore, often shown separately on food labels. So what is it that makes fibre so important for us? “A diet with sufficient fibre content helps reduce the risk of many lifestyle diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, colon cancer, constipation, haemorrhoids and gallstones. It also helps prevent the development of tooth decay and gum disease,” explains Pavla Staňková.

High-fibre foods, such as wholemeal products, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables will help you feel fuller. “This is because fibre binds with other substances, such as fats, cholesterol and bile acids, which then reduces their absorption by the body. Fibre also reduces the absorption rate of carbohydrates,” adds Pavla. On top of that, fibre has the capacity to bind with harmful substances as well as to speed up bowel movement, which aids digestion.

“Fast” and “slow” carbohydrates

Carbohydrates v. sugar | KetoDietThe main difference between complex and simple carbohydrates is how quickly they get digested and absorbed. That’s why they are sometimes referred to as slow and fast carbohydrates.

“With the assistance of digestive enzymes, complex polysaccharides are gradually broken down to monosaccharides during the digestion process. Monosaccharides are the only type of carbohydrates that the body can absorb,” explains Pavla Staňková. Complex carbohydrates prompt a more gradual rise in blood sugar, hence the label “slow“. “Fast“ carbohydrates, on the other hand, get absorbed rapidly and tend to raise blood sugar levels quickly, which explains why you feel a surge of energy after you have consumed them. Paradoxically, you might end up feeling even more hungry than before. Why? „A rapid increase in blood sugar levels leads to a sudden release of insulin from the pancreas, which then results in a quick drop of blood sugar,“ according to the specialist Pavla. A quick decrease in blood sugar levels then results in the feeling of hunger.

If your diet contains too many carbohydrates – you enjoy them several times a day – and if you don’t have an active lifestyle, your body can’t keep up with their processing. This is particularly true for simple, fast sugars. The body will then start turning them into fat reserves. Yes, those unsightly rolls of fat you are so desperate to get rid of. This explains why if you don’t manage to reduce the amount of carbohydrates in your diet when trying to lose weight, you are most likely setting yourself up to fail. „An increased intake of carbohydrates reduces the body’s ability to use its own fat reserves,“ explains Pavla. It is these fat stores that will provide you with energy when you embark on a protein diet, characterized by reducing the carbohydrate intake to a minimum.

Why eliminate some carbohydrates from your diet and which ones?

In general, a healthy, balanced diet can contain all types of carbohydrates. However, you should reduce the amount of simple sugars. „Apart from naturally ocurring sugars in fruit, vegetables and honey, sugar is also added to a whole variety of food products in the form of table sugar and glucose-fructose syrups,“ explains the university-based specialist consultant Pavla Staňková. Energy yielded from simple sugars should not exceed 10% of the daily food intake of a person with normal diet requirements. In recent years, some guidelines have been recommending reducing this figure even further to 5%.


Brown versus white sugar. What is the difference?

From the nutrition point of view, it doesn’t really make much difference whether you use white or brown sugar. Why? “The minute amount of minerals that can be found in brown sugar doesn’t bring any additional benefits to the body. When it comes to honey, which some of you might prefer, it does contain some other substances in small amounts which might have a more positive impact on the body, however, it is still mostly sugar (with a higher fructose content),” adds Pavla Staňková. „In terms of glucose-fructose syrups, they are mixtures of free glucose and fructose made from starch. Different types of syrup contain different glucose/fructose ratios. However, even table sugar contains 50% of fructose bound to glucose.” This is why you should reduce the overall amount of sugar you use for sweetening. It is still just simple sugar.


You should therefore opt for complex carbohydrates. They are contained, for example, in wholemeal bread (e.g. graham or rye) and grains, such as buckwheat or couscous. Make sure your diet contains plenty of pulses, e.g. red lentils or beluga lentils. Swap white rice for brown or basmati rice. Cook potatoes in their jackets or bake some sweet potatoes. However, even with complex carbohydrates you need to watch their quality and amounts. “Carbohydrates or even sugars are not bad. The only bad thing about them is the quantities in which we consume them,” adds Pavla.

Do you feel you need a spring reset? Embark on one of our KetoDiet plans and slowly get back on track to a healthy, balanced diet with 3 simple steps.


Author: Nikola Nevečeřalová

Photo: Depositphotos


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