Welcome to the first edition of Nutrition Made Simple! In this series, I’ll be taking a topic in nutrition and breaking it down in easy to understand steps. Nutrition can be a minefield, and although it’s very technical and complex, I want to make it easy to understand for you. Let’s start with carbohydrates!
In this post, I will be discussing what carbohydrates are, why we need them, decoding ‘good’ and ‘bad’ carbs, and giving you some tips on how to improve your carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients, along with protein and fat. I will be explaining fat and protein at a later date, so stay tuned!
Carbs glorious carbs!
We all love carbohydrates. They’re what fuel us and give us energy. However, they have gotten a bad rap by many diet companies who claim carbs are the enemy. Popular diets like The Atkins diet, Paleo and South beach promote restricting carbohydrates in their diets, leaving dieters feeling lethargic, lousy and tired. However, there are other diets who promote increasing carbohydrates, such as the Ornish diet. So who’s right? Are carbs really as bad as they are made out to be?
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the biggest energy source we have. They make up one of the three macronutrients are body requires to maintain good health. Carbohydrates are the fibre, sugar and starches found in foods. They are sugar molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. These sugar molecules are made up of 1 or more depending on the food and break down in the body to be used for energy. They are found in foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, potatoes and milk products. These kinds of foods aren’t usually thought of when the word carb comes to mind, but they provide us with long lasting energy. Carbohydrates are also found in foods which are usually more associated with carbs, such as pasta, bread, pastries and sweets.
Types of carbohydrates
You probably hear carbs being compared against each other, for example
Good carbs vs bad carbs
Complex carbs vs simple carbs
Slow carbs vs fast carbs
Healthy carbs vs unhealthy carbs
This can be confusing. It can also increase the assumption that all carbs are bad, if people only hear one side of the story. The truth is, carbohydrates are not all created equally. There are various kinds of carbohydrates, and some we need more than others. Let me break it down for you (it’s about to get a bit technical up in here).
Your brain, nervous system and red blood cells rely on carbohydrates as their main fuel source. Your muscles use carbs for fuel when you do anything that requires exertion. Your brain needs carbs to function properly. There is, however, a difference between certain types of carbs, and some are better than others.
Complex carbohydrates are the ‘good’ carbs and are what we need to be making up around 50% of our diet with. They are found in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and pulses (aka beans). These carbs are slow energy releasers, and provide you with energy and nutrients for a healthy life. They are critical to our health, and pretty much the only thing that everyone agrees on in nutritional science today, is that we should be taking in a great portion of our diet with complex carbs in the form of fruits and vegetables.
They help you feel fuller for longer, and are packed full of fibre (essential for optimum health, we’ll talk about that later). They are beneficial when you are trying to live a healthier lifestyle, as they are packed full of nutrients. In fact, carbohydrates are the one macronutrient where you get the most nutrients; without carbs our bodies would be deprived of the nutrients it needs, and our health would rapidly deteriorate. Complex carbs also help us control our blood sugar levels, which is paramount to maintaining a healthy weight. I’ll go into that in more detail later.
Some more examples of complex carbs are:
- Brown rice pasta
- Brown rice
- Black beans
- Sweet potatoes
Simple carbohydrates/refined carbohydrates
Simple carbs separate very fast when entered into the body, and are used as an immediate energy source. They can be detrimental when consumed in large amounts, as they are comprised of refined sugars with minimal vitamins and nutrients. Some examples include honey, fruit juices, milk, sweets and fizzy drinks.
There is one variation of simple carbohydrates that are one of the main culprits of the obesity epidemic today: refined carbs. If you want to lose weight and/or improve your health, reduction of refined carbs is a necessity. They are processed carbohydrates that have had the nutrients extracted from them. As a result, they have reduced nutritional value and have been stripped of their fibre content. Often times this is to increase the shelf life, or to improve the taste. It’s not, however, doing much good for our health and waist lines.They are found in foods with white flour such as cereals, pizza, pasta, bread, sugary drinks and chips. Refined sugar is also classed as a refined carbohydrate, and ice cream, chocolate, cakes and donuts are the most typical refined carbohydrate source.
Whereas complex carbs are nutritious and energy rich, supporting your body for a long, simple carbs are a source of empty calories, and with the fibre and nutrients extracted, and don’t provide much long lasting energy. Simple carbs might fill you up for the short term, such as a big bowl of white pasta with tomato sauce, but they spike your blood sugar levels, don’t provide you with fibre, and it’s not long until you’re hungry again.
This is where the confusion sets in and the bad associations are attached to carbs. Somewhere along the line, people started confusing complex carbs with simple carbs, and that’s why carbs on the whole are getting and have had a bad rap.
Carbs and blood sugar levels
When you eat any carbohydrate, your body breaks it down into glucose, which your body uses for fuel. Simple carbs are converted to sugar in the body very quickly, so these make the blood sugar levels go up even more than complex carbs. As blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas releases insulin, a fat producing hormone. This hormone prompts cells to store excess blood sugar as storage (fat cells) in the body. The more insulin is released, the more fat we store.
Since simple sugars make blood sugar levels go up more than complex carbs, more insulin is released, and more fat cells are stored. This is why foods such as pasta and refined products are really best eaten in moderation, since too many of them can cause a dramatic increase in insulin in the body. If this process happens too much, the body can no longer produce insulin as it becomes resistant, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.
Which foods are best for regulating blood sugar levels?
Without going into too much detail, there is a method for ranking carbohydrates according to how quickly they are absorbed into the blood stream and their overall effect on blood glucose levels. This is called the Glycemic Index.
The higher the GI of the food, the more easily the food is digested and absorbed, and the more rapid the rise and fall in blood sugar levels.
The lower the number, the slower the rise in blood sugar and insulin levels. Foods with a low GI are not as readily digested and absorbed as high GI foods, and have many benefits in terms of weight management, appetite suppression and diabetes management and prevention.
High GI Food Examples
Fruit juice, pasta, sweets, pastries
Low GI Food Examples
Vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and all complex carbs (see above for more examples)
You don’t have to exclude simple carbs and High GI foods from your diet completely, but understand that there’s a bit of a payoff to your health when you eat them, and make sure you have a good balance of complex and simple carbs. Try and increase the amount of complex carbs you take in, as this will improve your overall health and wellbeing.
Fibre and its role in carbohydrates
Fibre is a kind of complex carbohydrate that humans can’t actually digest, and it’s found in plants such as fruit and vegetables. Even though our bodies can’t break it down and it’s not actually classed as a macronutrient, it’s important we eat plenty of fibre-rich carbohydrates. Its purpose is to exercise our digestive tract and help us to eliminate waste from the body. It also reduces our risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and colon cancer, while promoting a healthy weight and keeping our cholesterol levels in check. The recommended daily allowance of fibre is 25 grams. Fibre is found in complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and grains, and is another (big) reason we should be eating plenty of them.
How many carbs should I be eating?
Depending on your age, sex, and energy levels, the average recommended carbohydrate intake is between 45-65% of your daily intake of food. That’s equivalent to about 225-325g of carbohydrates. You should aim for the majority of this carbohydrate allowance to be made up of complex carbs. Try and limit the simple carbs as the more of these you have, the less room you’re leaving for the nutritious, energy rich kinds. These figures differ a lot if you are exercising or training for a specific goal. In that case, the carb intake will be dependant on the individual.
Carbohydrates are an essential part of our diet that keeps us healthy, satiated and alive. Without them, well, we wouldn’t be here. They provide our body with energy, and fuel our brains and our muscles and organs. Carbs aren’t just the white fluffy foods you think of, such as bread and pastries. Vegetables, grains and fruits are also carbs, and we need to ensure we eat a whole host of these on a regular basis. Complex carbohydrates are better for you than simple carbs, and will provide you with a whole range of nutrients that your body needs for optimum health and energy. Simple and refined carbs have had their nutrients extracted, and intake of these carbs should be limited. Carbs with a low GI are better for us in the long run, and these should be chosen over high GI foods wherever possible.
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