This is a tricky one. Depending on who you listen to, carbs are your enemy or your best friend! The trouble is … not all carbohydrates are created equal.
What counts as a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are three important components in human nutrition – collectively they are the fuel that provides energy to our cells. In simple terms, carbohydrates are combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the form of sugars, starches and fibres.
What’s not so simple is the way different carbohydrates behave in the body.
Good Carb, Bad Carb
Some might say there’s no such thing as a good carbohydrate, but this is untrue.
Let’s start with fibre. This is a form of carbohydrate the human body cannot digest, but it is a vital part of the diet. Fibre creates ‘bulk’. In the stomach it produces a feeling of fullness, which prevents overeating, and slows down the digestive process and the absorption of sugars.
Fibre also helps digested material pass more easily through the intestine and absorbs water to soften bowel movements.
Good sources of fibre are fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Types of soluble fibre can also work with the liver to control levels of cholesterol in the blood.
Ask your nutritionist to explain the importance of fibre in lowering cholesterol.
Complex carbohydrates can be converted into energy, but the body must first break them down into a form that can be absorbed into the blood. Unprocessed ‘starchy’ foods like grains, beans, peas, corn and potatoes contain complex carbohydrates and many of them are also valuable in providing proteins, vitamins, minerals and fibre. In moderation, they have a place in a healthy, balanced diet.
The worst carbs are the simple sugars (mono-saccharides), like glucose and fructose. These ‘bad carbs’ are found in most processed foods – often hidden in products that aren’t even classified as ‘sweet’, especially ‘low-fat’ foods. Try to avoid them.
What makes ‘bad carbs’ bad?
The biggest problem is that they are very quickly and easily absorbed into the blood stream. High levels of blood sugar increase risks to your health:
- Eating too many processed foods is associated with obesity and cardiovascular disease
- High blood sugar prompts the body to produce insulin, which increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
- Excess glucose is stored as fat; fructose can cause fatty liver and damage to blood vessels.
- A build-up of fat can lead to inflammatory chemicals being released; these are linked with a range of health problems, including diabetes and cancer.
The GI Factor
The GI (Glycaemic Index) ranks carbohydrates (from 1-100) according to how quickly they release sugar into the bloodstream.
Low GI carbs are better, but advertising and packaging would have you believe that all foods labelled ‘low GI’ are fine. In fact, you need to calculate the amount of carbohydrate in one serve of a particular food and multiply it by its GI. This will give you its GL (Glycaemic Load) – a more useful way to compare it with other foods.
Your nutritionist will tell you more about how carbohydrates work in the body, and which types you can safely include in your diet.