If you’ve taken part in any sort of diet or healthy-eating plan in the last few years, you’ve probably been told to avoid foods with too many carbohydrates. On the whole, this is good advice, as carbohydrates contain a high number of calories, and too many calories means weight-gain and various associated health problems. But carbohydrates are not all bad. In fact, they are an essential part of the human diet. Along with proteins and fats, they are one of the body’s main three sources of energy (calories), a group referred to ‘macronutrients’.
Carbohydrates are essential for powering the nervous system and brain function, and providing the energy that makes our muscles work. Nutritionists recommend that a healthy diet should be between 45- 65% carbohydrate. If your diet is lacking in carbohydrate, you may become lethargic and experience low moods. Carbohydrate deficiency can also cause wasting of the muscles, as your body will try to use protein - usually reserved for building muscle tissue - to provide energy instead.
But not all carbohydrates are the same. Some are a good source of fuel for your body, while others will probably just make you put on weight. To understand why, we need to look at how carbohydrates are made up, and how the body digests them.
All carbohydrates are made up of chains of sugars, or ‘saccharides’ and the length of these chains determines how quickly they can be absorbed by your body. When a carbohydrate molecule enters your digestive system, it is broken down into smaller units of sugar, and for longer chains, known as ‘complex’ carbohydrates, this takes more time. Once the chain is broken down, the sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream via the small intestine and travel to the liver, where they are converted into glucose, which re enters the bloodstream to be carried to your body’s cells and burned as energy.
The problem is, if too much energy is produced at once, your body will be unable to use it all, which can lead to a variety of issues. A healthy body will only keep unused glucose in the bloodstream for so long, after which it will store it as fat. And if your body has been unable to use all the energy available, you are likely to feel hungry again more quickly, which can lead to binge eating. Flooding your bloodstream with sudden spikes of glucose can also make it difficult for your body to remove it all, which may lead to Type 2 diabetes. To avoid these problems, opt for complex carbohydrates that take longer to break down, providing energy when it is needed. As a guide, carbohydrates are often rated according to the Glycaemic Index (GI), which measures the levels of glucose in your blood after eating a particular food. The higher a food’s GI number, the quicker it releases energy, and the more energy is likely to be wasted or converted to fat.
There are three types of carbohydrate:
Sugars are ‘simple’ carbohydrates, made up of either single or double sugar chains (monosaccharides or disaccharides). They have a sweet taste, and are quickly absorbed by the body, which means a quick burst of energy followed by potential conversion to fat.
Starches are ‘complex’ carbohydrates, made of long sugar chains (polysaccharides). They take longer to break down, and provide a slow release of energy.
Fibre is also a complex carbohydrate, but in this case, the sugar chains are too complex for the human body to break down. This means that fibre is not a source of energy, but it is important for the digestive system.
As a general rule, then, starches are a healthier source of energy than sugars. But even this isn’t the full picture. If carbohydrate is to make up around half of your calorie intake, you need to make sure that the carbs you choose also contain other essential nutrients, otherwise you will end up either lacking in vitamins and minerals, or having to overeat to get everything your body needs. So while fruits contain sugar (some more than others) they are high in essential nutrients and low in calories, so they won’t overload the body with too much unusable energy. Similarly, complex starches that use up a high number of calories on little more than carbohydrate may not be the wisest choice.
This is where ‘refined’ carbohydrates can be a problem. Refined carbohydrates are foods that have been artificially processed in a way that makes them taste good, but removes all the other nutrients in doing so. These processes were usually developed before we really understood nutrition, but remain hugely popular, making up a large part of the average Western diet.
There are two types of refined carbs:
Refined sugars are processed simple carbohydrates, like table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and agave syrup. Sugar as we know it, in granulated or syrup form, is extracted from fruits and vegetables with high amounts of naturally occurring sugar, and once the sugar is extracted, the rest of the plant is discarded. Refined sugars are the least beneficial type of carbs, as they cause a quick spike of energy that is likely to be converted to fat, and lack any additional nutrients to compensate.
Refined grains are foodstuffs made from processed grain, usually white flour. Here, the healthiest part of the grain, rich in fibre and other nutrients, is removed. Refined grains are complex carbohydrates, so they will release energy more slowly than sugar-rich foods, but as they are lacking in other essential nutrients, they are far less healthy than foods containing the whole grain.
What foods are refined carbs? The list.
To get the most out of your carbohydrates, you need to cut out refined or processed carbs, and eat more ‘whole’ carbs, which are richer in vitamins and minerals.
So which foods should you avoid? Follow this useful list, and you shouldn’t go far wrong. And if you find your favourite comfort food on the list, why not try swapping it for something healthier?
Firstly, avoid any foods with added sugar. This includes obvious things like candy, fizzy drinks, pastries, cakes and cookies, but there are other, less obvious culprits. Many breakfast cereals, especially those aimed at children, can be high in sugar, as well as supposedly ‘healthy’ foods like granola bars and flavoured yoghurts. Sports and energy drinks are particularly high in sugar, and should be avoided unless you’re about to do some strenuous exercise. Fruit juice from concentrate also has added sugar, so try to stick to fresh, or make your own.
In fact, so many foodstuffs have added sugar, it’s often difficult to tell. If you’re not sure, check the nutritional information on the packaging. You might be surprised what you find!
The other thing to avoid is anything made from processed grains, usually referred to as ‘white’ as opposed to ‘wholemeal’. This includes white rice, white bread products, white noodles and white pasta. All these foodstuffs are available as healthy wholemeal versions, or, if you’ve already eaten too many carbs, why not try one of these delicious and filling no-carb pasta recipes?
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