Thanks to diet plans like the Atkins diet and South Beach diet, carbohydrates have earned themselves a bad reputation – you only have to mention the word ‘carbs’ to most weight-conscious people and images of stodgy food and weight gain spring instantly to mind.
But the reality is our bodies simply wouldn’t be able to function without good carbohydrates; the key is understanding what a good carbohydrate is and eating them in moderation…
We need carbohydrates in our diet because they are the main energy source for our bodies and unlike protein and good fats which are needed to build tissues and cells, carbohydrates are easier to digest. During digestion the sugars, starches and fibres found in good carbohydrates such as fruits, grains and vegetables are broken down into simple sugars and absorbed into the bloodstream where they are known as blood sugar or blood glucose. From the bloodstream glucose enters the body’s cells with the help of insulin where it is used by the body as fuel for all levels of activity – everything from breathing to walking the dog. Extra glucose is stored in the liver, muscles and other cells for later use or it is converted to fat.
All carbohydrates function as relatively quick energy sources; simple carbohydrates cause bursts of energy much more quickly than complex carbohydrates because of the quicker rate at which they are digested and absorbed. Simple carbohydrates can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and sugar highs, while complex carbohydrates provide more sustained energy. While most of your energy (calories) should come from carbohydrates, contrary to popular belief it’s not just the amount but also the type of carbohydrates you consume, that reflect badly on the bathroom scales
Good or complex carbohydrates include: starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas and carrots), fruit (berries, citrus fruits, melons, apples, pears, bananas and kiwifruit), legumes (pinto beans, chickpeas and lentils) and whole grains (quinoa, barley, brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain pasta and whole-grain breakfast cereals) – food that looks as if it actually came from the earth; whilst simple (bad) carbohydrates include: sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juices, pastries, white bread, white pasta and processed foods high in sugar – basically foods that have been so overly processed they’ve been stripped of their fibre and nutrients, had all the water squeezed out of them, then had fat, salt, sugar and calories added so that they are more a factory product than anything produced from the soil.
The right sort of carbohydrate then is a key component of a healthy diet, providing many important nutrients and helping to keep hunger and blood sugar levels in check. Choose plenty of fibre-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans and legumes, whilst limiting foods with added sugars and refined grains and you’ll enjoy longer periods of energy, a slimmer waist line and even a good night’s sleep!