Aug 17, 2012

Carbohydrate Confusion: are Carbs a Part of a Healthy Diet?

Due to the popularity of low carbohydrate diets in the recent years like Atkins and South Beach, carbohydrates (carbs) received a bad reputation as a nutrient that will make you pack on the kilos and therefore should be eliminated. But, the truth about carbohydrates is different than what the “low carb” diet experts would want you to believe. A healthy, well-balanced diet should actually contain a certain amount of carbohydrates to provide us with important nutrients to keep our bodies functioning properly.

What is a carbohydrate and why does my body need them?
Carbohydrates are found in foods like starch (rice, pasta, bread, corn, cereal), fruit and vegetables, beans, milk/yogurt, and high sugar foods. Carbs are any food that is broken down once digested into glucose (sugar).  Animal protein, cheese, and fat do not contain carbohydrate.

The body uses the “sugar” from the carbohydrates to give you energy for daily activities and to maintain proper organ function. The glucose is either burned right away or can be saved in the muscles and liver to be used later.

What is the difference between “good” and “bad” carbohydrates?
All carbohydrates will turn into sugar after being digested, but carbohydrates are considered “good” or “bad” based on the amount of fiber, nutrients, or added sugar they contain. It would be more accurate to describe carbohydrates as either “complex” or “simple” instead of “good” or “bad” because all foods (in moderation) can be part of a healthy diet.

Fiber and starch content is what differentiates “complex” from “simple” carbohydrates. Fiber slows down the digestion and absorption of glucose because our bodies cannot break it down. Slowing down digestion prevents the sugar in the food from rushing into the blood stream too quickly, reducing insulin spikes and blood sugar crashes which tend to make us sleepy. Eating a high fiber, “complex” carbohydrate should give you sustained energy during the day….making you less likely to reach for high-sugar “simple carbs to give you energy during the day.

Complex carbohydrates also generally contain more important nutrients that our bodies need to function properly. For example, a slice of whole grain bread contains about 80 calories and 15g of carbohydrates, same as ½ of a can of soft drink. But, the bread has fiber, B-vitamins (Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folic Acid), and some important minerals your body needs. The ½ cup of soft drink, although it contains the same amount of carbohydrate as the bread, does not provide any vitamins or minerals and has 0g of fiber.  Drinking the soft drink will give you “empty” calories and little real nutrition, plus you will not feel satisfied with just the soft drink, so you will end up reaching for something else…adding even more calories to your day.

When choosing carbohydrates for your diet, choose those that do not contain any added sugar like fruits, vegetables, whole grains (quinoa, barley, brown rice) and limit those carbs that have added sugars like cakes, pastries, sugary drinks, or lollies. That way you will avoid the blood sugar crashes and get the nutrients your body really needs.

Will carbohydrates make me fat? I want to lose weight!
Yes and no. Too much carbohydrate can be converted into fat, if it is not burned off. The problem is that many “simple” carbohydrate foods are easily over consumed and with our sedentary lifestyles we do not need much carbohydrate to use for energy. If you are very physically active or have a physically demanding job, you may need to consume more carbs to keep you going. For those of us who sit at a desk most of the day, we don’t use up as much energy and our bodies will end up storing extra carbs as fat.

Carbohydrates are also a cheap source of calories. Many restaurants tend to pile on the rice, pasta, or bread leading us to over consume carbohydrates.  A serving of rice/pasta which will provide 80 calories and 15g of carbohydrates is only 1/3 of a cup which is very small compared to portions that many people consider “normal”.

So, how do I fit carbohydrates into my diet?
The minimum number of carbohydrates we need per day for proper brain function is 150g.  Generally it is recommended that 45-65% of your calories should come from carbohydrates. For a person that consumes 1800 calories per day that is about 200-300g of carbohydrate per day. If you are physically inactive, try to stick with the lower end of that range, if you are very physically active aim for the higher end. Choose “complex” carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, low fat milk, beans, and whole grains. These complex carbs should help you get the necessary 25-35g of fiber and they will also give you a hefty dose of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Limit foods containing added sugar like cakes, pastries, lollies, or sugary drinks. For plenty of energy and a healthy life enjoy a diet with complex carbs, lean protein choices, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables!

Article by Julie Masci from New Life Nutrition.  NLN is a team of dedicated dietitians and nutritionists based in Brisbane, Australia.

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