Carbohydrates are often portrayed negatively in the media and in popular diets but having the right carbohydrates in our diet provides us with good, sustainable energy, helps facilitate healthy digestion and supports maintaining a healthy weight.
Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose which is one of it’s main fuel sources – it’s the fuel you first go for when exercising, the fuel your brain needs to function and the fuel your kidneys and red blood cells love. Carbohydrates provide the body with 4 calories per gram.
There are 2 main categories of carbohydrates: Simple and complex carbohydrates (these refer to the chemical structure of the molecules that make up the food).
Simple carbohydrates are smaller compounds that break down quickly providing a quick burst of energy when we consume them. If they are not used for energy, they are then stored as fat and often provide little or no nutritional value. Simple carbohydrates are found in foods such as sugar, soft drinks and fruit juices.
Complex carbohydrates are larger compounds that require more time to be broken down. They digest slower, slow down absorption of nutrients and prevent huge spikes in our blood sugar levels. These complex carbs include starches and fibre.
These foods are good sources of fibre, they help manage our weight and support our cardiovascular health.
All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose when digested and are used either for energy or stored as glycogen in our body for when we need energy (this is stored as fat in our bodies). Foods high in simple carbohydrates like sugar cause our glucose to increase rapidly and this requires a more concentrated hormonal response to clear the glucose from our bloodstream. This can become increasingly taxing on our system if these rapid spikes become frequent. If this happens our ability to manage our blood sugar decreases and we become less able to produce sufficient amounts of insulin. This is referred to as decreased insulin sensitivity and is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Sugars are carbohydrates and chemically are made up of monosaccharides. Glucose, sugar (sucrose) and dairy (lactose) are made from one monosaccharide, where as fruit and honey (fructose) and malt sugar (maltose) are made from two monosaccharides joined together.
It is important to note that sugars found in whole foods are different to those found in processed foods as the sugars are in relatively small amounts, are absorbed slower in our bodies and provide other nutritional benefits (i.e. vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) rather than hitting our body with high concentrated levels of sugar found in products with added sugars.
Starches, polysaccharides, are made up of many glucose molecules linked together. When we eat carbohydrates that contain amylopectin (a type of starch), less insulin is secreted and therefore there is less chance our body will store that carbohydrate as fat. Around three quarters of the starch in unprocessed whole foods is amylopectin and when we eat these, it’s also packaged with fibre which helps to slow down digestion and the absorption of glucose into our blood stream.
This is probably a whole topic in itself but in short, fibre is something our bodies can not digest and these carbohydrates pass through our digestive system and help to move waste out of our bodies.
There are two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble. Fibre slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and helps to avoid spikes which allows for more stable levels of blood glucose. Soluble fibre increases digestive transit time which slows digestion and insoluble fibre supports digestive regularity.
If we don’t get enough fibre it can cause constipation, headaches, liver problems and sex hormone imbalances. Saying that however, if we eat too much it can also cause constipation. When it comes to fibre, it is all about bio-individuality and what works for you as an individual. Soluble fibre generally is better tolerated in those with IBS and includes legumes, fruits, vegetables, oats and flaxseeds.
This is a scale scientists use to indicate how quickly glucose enters the bloodstream from the foods we eat. The more a food spikes our insulin levels, the higher it is on the glycaemic index. It is important to note however, that this does not take into account how much of the food we consume and what other nutritional qualities that carbohydrate has.
Whole grains are made from three main parts – bran, endosperm and germ. The bran and germ contain most of the grain’s nutritional value such as the fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. When grains are refined, these two parts are typically removed to increase the shelf life of the product and what remains is the endosperm, containing carbohydrates and some protein. This means that the grain no longer contains the fibre that contributes to slow digestion and absorption. This is why refined grains like white flour and white bread cause our blood glucose levels to increase quickly when they’re consumed.
The source of your carbohydrates matters! As with any food, it is definitely a case of quality over quantity and although there are only 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate, it does spark an insulin response and this can lead the body to storing it as fat. This is different from fat, as even though fat has 9 calories per gram, it doesn’t lead to the release of insulin and therefore the body doesn’t send the signals to store it as fat.
Humans have been eating carbohydrates for years but in modern day diets, the amount being consumed has increased hugely. It’s important to get the balance right as eating too much or too little can be damaging for our health.
It’s important not to over-indulge on our carbs as it can cause inflammation, cause weight gain, cause slumps in our energy levels and increase our risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
On the flip side, it’s equally as important to not be fearful of carbohydrates as eating too little may cause our bodies to break down muscle to get our glucose needs, cause a decrease in energy levels, cause nutrient deficiencies and not consuming enough can wreak havoc on our adrenals. Not to mention that carbohydrates are found in so many foods – even green leafy vegetables, that if we cut out carbs, we are also cutting out fibre and many micronutrients that are needed for our health. Plus, our brains, kidneys and red blood cells need carbohydrates to functions.
For example, if you need a sugar kick or energy boost, then reaching for a piece of whole fruit is much more beneficial to your body then having a bar of chocolate.
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