Carbohydrates, also known as carbs are a well-used term today. The
conventional wisdom of the day is to avoid them. But are they really that bad? This article will yield the facts about carbohydrates and you can decide for yourself.
What are carbohydrates
Carbohydrates (aka carbs) are one of the main types of nutrients. The others are proteins and fats. Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy for the body. The digestive system changes carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar). The body uses this sugar for energy for the cells, tissues and organs. It stores any extra sugar in the liver and muscles for when it is needed.
Carbohydrates are known as simple or complex, depending on their chemical structure. Simple carbohydrates include sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products. They also include sugars added during food processing and refining. Complex carbohydrates include whole grain breads and cereals, starchy vegetables and legumes. Many of the complex carbohydrates are good sources of fiber.
Carbohydrates have somewhat of a bad reputation, especially when it comes to weight gain. But carbohydrates aren’t all bad. Because of their numerous health benefits, carbohydrates have a rightful place in our diets. In fact, the body needs carbohydrates to function properly.
But some carbohydrates might be better for us than others. There is a need to understand more about carbohydrates and how to choose healthy ones.
Carbohydrates are found in many foods and beverages. Most carbohydrates occur naturally in plant-based foods, such as grains. Food manufacturers also add carbohydrates to processed foods in the form of starch or added sugar.
Common sources of naturally occurring carbohydrates include: vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, milk, seeds, and grains.
There are three main types of carbohydrates:
- Starch. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, meaning it is made of many sugar units bonded together. Starch occurs naturally in vegetables, grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.
- Fiber. There’s quite a bit of talk about fiber and its benefits these days. Well, fiber also is a complex carbohydrate. It occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cooked dry beans and peas. [More on fiber below]
- Sugar. Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrate and occurs naturally in some foods, including fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. Types of sugar include fruit sugar (fructose), table sugar (sucrose) and milk sugar (lactose).
Why is fiber important?
Fiber promotes a healthy digestive system by keeping the bowels moving. It also can help prevent obesity and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes by slowing down digestion and keeping you full longer.
Fiber can be soluble (dissolves in water) or insoluble (does not dissolve in water).
Soluble fiber can be found in most fruits; some vegetables, including corn, peas and carrots; oatmeal and oat bran; nuts, seeds and dry beans. When mixed with water during digestion, this type of fiber becomes a thick, gelatin material. Soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol (related to heart disease risk) and blood glucose (related to risk for diabetes).
Insoluble fiber is also found in a variety of foods, especially foods made with whole wheat flour, wheat bran, brown rice, whole grain cereals, couscous, most vegetables, and fruits. Insoluble fiber helps the body move waste through the digestive system. It also can help prevent small blood clots that can cause heart attacks or strokes.
Both kinds of fiber are important. Adult women should try to eat at least 20 grams of fiber a day. Men should try to eat 30 grams a day. The easiest way to include fiber in the diet is to eat a variety of foods that include raw, whole fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grain breads, pastas and cereals.
Facts about carbohydrates
Terms such as “low carb” or “net carbs” often appear on product labels. Typically, “net carbs” is used to mean the amount of carbohydrates in a product excluding fiber, or excluding both fiber and sugar alcohols.
One means of classifying carbs is the glycemic index. The glycemic index classifies carbohydrate-containing foods according to their potential to raise your blood sugar level.
Weight-loss diets based on the glycemic index typically recommend limiting foods that are higher on the glycemic index. Foods with a relatively high glycemic index ranking include potatoes and white bread, and less healthy options such as snack foods and desserts that contain refined flours.
Many healthy foods, such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy products, are naturally lower on the glycemic index.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. So, for a consumption of 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates a day.
Reading product labels are required reading in today’s world. The carbohydrate content of packaged foods can be found on the Nutrition Facts label on each package. The label shows total carbohydrates — which includes starches, fiber, sugar alcohols, and naturally occurring and added sugars. Labels might also list separately total fiber, soluble fiber and sugar.
Despite their bad reputation, carbohydrates are vital to our health for a number of reasons.
These are found in the next section.
What carbohydrates do
Provide energy – Carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel source. During digestion, sugars and starches are broken down into simple sugars. They’re then absorbed into the bloodstream, where they are known as blood sugar (blood glucose). From there, glucose enters the body’s cells with the help of insulin. Glucose is used by the body for energy, and fuels all the activities — whether it’s going for a jog or simply breathing. Extra glucose is stored in the liver, muscles and other cells for later use, or is converted to fat.
Protects against disease – Some evidence suggests that whole grains and dietary fiber from whole foods help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Fiber may also protect against obesity and type 2 diabetes. Fiber is also essential for optimal digestive health.
Controls weight – Evidence shows that eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains can help you control the weight. Their bulk and fiber content aids weight control by helping you feel full on fewer calories. Contrary to what low-carb diets claim, very few studies show that a diet rich in healthy carbohydrates leads to weight gain or obesity. The key word is healthy. More on this in the next section.
The fact is, Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, and provide many important nutrients. Still, not all carbs are created equal.
Let’s look at how to make healthy carbohydrates work in a balanced diet:
- Limit added sugars. This is a big one. Added sugar probably isn’t harmful in small amounts. But there’s no health advantage to consuming any amount of added sugar. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that less than 10 percent of calories you consume every day come from added sugar. Therefore, we have to stay clear of highly sweetened drinks and any item that contains high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient (which is in a lot of products these days). Large quantities of added sugar should be avoided at all costs.
- Emphasize fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Select whole fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables without added sugar. Other options are fruit juices and dried fruits, which are concentrated sources of natural sugar and therefore have more calories. Whole fruits and vegetables also add fiber, water and bulk, which help to feel fuller on fewer calories.
- Choose whole grains.
Whole grains are better sources than refined grains of fiber and other important nutrients, such as B vitamins. Refined grains go through a process that strips out parts of the grain — along with some of the nutrients and fiber (i.e. white flour, white rice).
- Stick to low-fat dairy products. Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are good sources of calcium and protein, plus many other vitamins and minerals. Consider the low-fat versions, to help limit calories and saturated fat. And beware of dairy products that have added sugar.
- Eat more legumes.
Legumes — which include beans, peas and lentils — are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available. They are typically low in fat and high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium, and they contain beneficial fats and fiber. Legumes are a good source of protein and can be a healthy substitute for meat, which has more saturated fat and cholesterol.
So we must choose our carbohydrates wisely. Limit foods with added sugars and refined grains, such as sugary drinks, desserts and candy, which are packed with calories but low in nutrition. Instead, it’s best to go for fruits, vegetables and whole grains [fiber].
Carbohydrates and weight
A common question regarding carbs today is: does eating carbohydrates initiate weight gain or make it challenging losing weight? Well that depends. Eating too many calories from any type of food will cause weight gain. It goes back to fiber. Foods with low fiber content often contain a lot of calories without any nutrients. They are metabolized into glucose very quickly. This sudden spike in the blood glucose level triggers the pancreas to produce more insulin, a hormone that promotes fat storage. This means it is easy to gain weight by eating too many of these types of foods.
Foods with high fiber content are metabolized more slowly without causing a big insulin rush. The body can use them as energy over several hours. In general, foods with high fiber content are higher in vitamins and minerals so they are healthier foods to eat.
Another common question regarding carbs is: is it possible to eat a healthy diet without eating carbohydrates at all? Weight loss is the most common reason why people decide to go on low carb diets. Experts in diet and nutrition agree that a low carb diet can be a good way to jump start weight loss, but it is hard to follow for a long time. Another caution is that many low carb diets include large amounts of unhealthy oils. Low carb diets that are high in animal fat may actually increase the risk of heart disease. And the long term effects of very low carb or no-carb diets are not known. A diet that includes a moderate amount of healthy carbohydrates like whole grain products, fruits and vegetables is the best diet for long-term weight management and health. It is also the easiest kind of diet to follow.
So again— we must choose our carbohydrates wisely but not avoid them altogether. Our bodies need carbs so let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
As I like to say: all things in moderation!
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