What Exactly are Carbohydrates?
Let’s start with the basics: your body needs carbs. Carbohydrates simply provide the body with the energy it requires to keep going. They are the fuel that enables your body to function properly. Carbs carry around a bad reputation but they form an absolutely essential part of any healthy diet. Picking the right carbs is important as it can affect your mood as well as your blood sugar and energy levels. The variety of carbs can make it confusing to figure out what you should be looking for when choosing food items. Let’s dive right in to understand what carbohydrates are and just how much you need.
What are carbohydrates? An overview
A healthy diet should be a combination of three macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. The body requires all three to function properly. Carbs can also be split into three subgroups: sugars, starch, and fiber. Each subgroup is a necessary component of a balanced diet. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal, and the quality and quantity of carbs play a role when deciding what to eat.
This type of carbohydrate is the one to watch out for in foods. Many diets include free sugars which can have very bad effects on your health if consumed in large amounts. These sugars are those added to food and drinks and can be found in products like chocolate, jam, cakes, sodas, biscuits, etc. Free sugars are also naturally present in fruit juices, honey, and syrups. For a healthy diet, the recommended amount of free sugars should never exceed more than 5% of your daily intake of calories.
When you think about what carbohydrates are, your mind probably pictures the food group consisting of rice, pasta, potatoes, and bread. This type of carb makes up about a third of the food we eat and is an incredible source of energy. Starch also provides a large portion of vitamins as well as iron and calcium. A healthy and balanced diet should include starchy foods every single day. They provide a slower release of energy throughout the day, which is great for keeping you alert and stopping you from snacking.
Fiber is a plant-based nutrient. What makes this carbohydrate so special is that it cannot be digested. Its health benefits are nevertheless incredible, and studies show that an increase in fiber intake can lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Fiber is found in whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. By swapping white bread for wholemeal, for example, you can easily increase the amount of fiber you consume. Beans and lentils are also a fantastic source of fiber as well as being filled with protein and nutrients. Why not give them a try?
Why eat carbs? The health benefits
Carbohydrates are essential nutrients that keep the human body functioning optimally. Below are their main health benefits.
Energy: Glucose is the main energy source for the body. When the digestive system has broken down the carbs into simple sugars and glucose, the pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that delivers the energy source to cells around the body. Any leftover glucose is then stored in the liver or as fat for use later on.
Digestion: Fiber is an essential part of your gut health. Fiber is indigestible and can’t be absorbed, so it passes through our systems intact. This means that you feel more satisfied after meals and fuller for longer. The consumption of fiber also promotes regular bowel movements and prevents constipation. A winner.
Brain function: The brain is a hungry organ that needs a lot of oxygen and requires on average about 20% of the body’s energy at all times. And where does it get its energy from? Carbs of course!
Blood sugar levels: When you eat carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks them down into sugar, which enters the blood. As blood sugar levels rise, insulin prompts cells to absorb blood sugar, allowing the levels of sugar in the bloodstream to decrease. This delicate equilibrium should be kept regulated, and a balanced diet of carbohydrates can make sure that blood sugar levels are never too low or too high.
The difference between simple, complex and refined carbohydrates
Many people believe that complex carbohydrates are healthier for you. While there is truth to this, the reality is a little more, well, complex.
Simple carbohydrates are known as monosaccharides and disaccharides: their biological structure contains either one or two sugar molecules respectively, making them ‘simple’. This simple molecular structure makes them very easy to break down, meaning that they can be used as fast sources of energy. This has some benefits but can also cause a spike in blood sugar levels and lead to you crashing afterwards. The nutritional value of simple carbohydrates is often much lower as well. Common simple carbs are fruit and milk, which contain nutrients, but should be portion-controlled.
Picking complex carbohydrates is usually the best choice. These long-chained carbs are called polysaccharides, which means that they contain three or more molecules of glucose. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down than simple carbs, causing no blood sugar spikes and leading to a gradual release of energy for the body. Complex carbohydrates usually contain less sugar and much more fiber than their simple counterparts, making them an overall healthier option.
Refined carbohydrates are starches that have gone through refinement, a process that essentially removes much of what made them healthy. The removal of most of the fiber, nutrients, and vitamins makes these simple carbs basically 'empty calories'. Refined carbs can be found in white flour, white bread, and white pasta for example. A diet that is rich in refined carbohydrates increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes as well as heart disease. When you eat refined carbs, your blood sugar can spike and drop rapidly. They are digested quickly which prevents feelings of fullness. This can lead to cravings and overeating, which in turn can cause weight gain and obesity.
Examples of carbohydrates: what to eat
Which foods have carbs? We’ve put together a list of common foods that are either high or low in carbs. You can use this as a reference when prepping your next meals. As a rule of thumb, you should try to find a middle ground between high-carb and low-carb foods, and pay attention to whether they are refined or complex.
Pasta: Pasta is an inexpensive food that is loaded with carbs. Try to avoid refined pasta and opt for the wholewheat versions instead.
Bread: White bread is a huge source of carbs with no real payoff in terms of fiber, vitamins, and nutrients. Pick wholemeal or granary bread which contain more whole grain goodness.
Cereal: Many sugar-laden cereals are massively high in carbs. Again, try to avoid refined sugary breakfast cereals. On the other hand, healthy cereals and porridge oats also contain large amounts of carbs but a much higher amount of nutrients and protein.
Berries: Many fruits contain plenty of sugar and are high in carbs, but berries including blueberries and strawberries can be included in low-carb diets. They are also a good source of vitamins and antioxidants.
Eggs: Eggs are a versatile food that is incredibly low in carbohydrates but still packs a punch in terms of protein and nutrients.
Leafy vegetables: Green vegetables are a major source of vitamins and can contain lots of iron and protein. These are a fantastic low-carb food with a great amount of fiber.
These are just a few examples of carbohydrates that you can mix and match to come up with your next meal.
The carb conclusion
Carbs certainly do divide opinions, but it doesn’t mean that you should completely stay away from them. Sure, eating a diet that is full of refined carbs is generally a bad idea. But choosing more complex carbohydrates is a much more nutritious option that will keep you satisfied for longer. Most carbs also contain plenty of other goodness such as fiber and vitamins that will help you stay healthy and happy. If you’re looking for recipe ideas to include healthy carbs into your diet, sign up for the 8fit app now.