Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ are one of the most commonly discussed nutrition topics amongst the general population. Most people seem to have an opinion on carbohydrates whether they have done their own research or have heard about them from diet programs or friends on diets (more often the case). So it begs the question – are carbohydrates bad for you? Do they make you gain weight?
The fact is that there is no such thing as “bad” carbohydrates. There are however carbohydrate foods that promote good health and those that increase the risk of certain lifestyle disease should they be consumed in excess (as is the case with most foods). Saying carbohydrates are bad is the same as saying fat is bad – both are essential for your body and have health benefits, they just need to be chosen wisely.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates include sugar and starch and are therefore present in a wide range of foods! Their basic building block is one or more sugar molecules. When digested, they break down and are used for energy to fuel many important bodily functions.
All carbohydrates are broken down similarly in that the body tries to turn it in to single sugar molecules that can pass in to the blood stream. Fibre on the other hand moves through relatively undigested which is necessary for your bowel health. Any sugar that is not used is stored in muscle and the liver for when it is needed later.
There are 2 types of carbohydrates:
Starch: Starch is the type of carbohydrate that is found in cereal grains, root vegetables, legumes and products made from these. These include items like bread, pasta and baked goods.
Sugars: Any food that contains a sugar is a carbohydrate containing food. This is a big reason why ‘low carb’ or ‘no carb’ diets are not sustainable or practical, because so many foods have natural sugars. Added sugar is also included in this group. If you are interested in a brief background on the different types of sugar, read below!
- Glucose: This type of sugar is absorbed directly into the blood stream and travels within it. It is a major source of energy for our bodies and is the main source of energy for the brain! This means that an absence of glucose from our diet will result in declined mental function and performance. Glucose can be found in fruits and some vegetables. Glucose is a fast acting sugar (high GI).
- Fructose (fruit sugar): Fructose is the sugar that is found mostly in fruit. It is also found in some vegetables and honey. Fructose is another type of sugar that is absorbed directly in to the blood stream. This sugar is often added to foods for its sweetness and desirable taste. Fructose is the sweetest of the sugars and is a slow acting sugar (low GI).
- Sucrose: This is your table sugar. It is made of a combination of fructose and glucose. It is found in brown sugar, fruits and syrups such as golden syrup and maple syrup. Sucrose is moderate GI.
- Lactose (milk sugar): This sugar is found in milk and therefore milk products e.g. yoghurt, ice cream and cheese. Lactose is in the milk of all mammals e.g. cows, goats and human breast milk. It is also commonly found in medications. This type of sugar is a common cause of intolerance in some people. Lactose has a low GI.
- Maltose: This sugar is a product of starch that has been broken down. It is made up of 2 glucose units. It is produced in the caramelisation of glucose, brewing beer and found in barley.
Here is a basic table of carbohydrate containing foods:
|Food type||Examples of food|
|Dairy products||Milk, milk products – yoghurt, cheese, custard, ice cream|
|Fruit||Apple, banana, apricot, dried fruit, fruit juice, mangoA few fruits have negligible amounts of carbohydrate, such as berries|
|Grain products||Bread, breakfast cereal, pasta, rice and all products made from these ingredients|
|Legumes||kidney beans, baked beans, chick peas, soy milk|
|Starchy vegetables||Potato, corn, sweet potatoAll other vegetables are low in carbohydrates and considered ‘carbohydrate free’ foods|
|“Extras”||Products with added sugar e.g. biscuits, cake, soft drink, muesli bars, hot chips|
Is eliminating carbohydrates for weight loss a good idea?
The short answer is that it is not recommended. There are more appropriate approaches to weight loss. The idea is to choose good carbs, not no carbs. For more in depth information on this topic, read my blog article on carbohydrate and weight loss.
How to choose your carbohydrates wisely
- Avoid high GI carbohydrate foods e.g. soft drink, cakes and lollies (“junk” food) – These foods do not provide any valuable nutrition, they are high in energy and they are often high in saturated fat as well.
- Choose wholemeal and wholegrain options where possible, for example, when shopping for bread and pasta. Choosing whole oats is not only good for digestion but can reduce your “bad” cholesterol levels! Incorporate brown rice in to your diet over white rice.
- Mix beans and lentils in with your meals and reduce the amount of meat used. Lentils have great health benefits and they are digested slowly so keep you full. Substituting some of your meat for lentils will also cut down on saturated fat.
- Eat 2 pieces of whole fruit per day and 5 serves of vegetables (not all starchy veggies). These are healthy sources of carbohydrate and provide you with plenty of fibre! Remember, fruit and vegetable juices provide low levels of fibre due to the skin having been removed during processing – therefore they are not the best option unless you struggle to eat whole fruit.
- Consume carbohydrates in moderation. This rule applies to almost all food e.g. meat, the difference is that carbohydrate foods are easier to over consume throughout the day and hence lead to weight gain. Align your carbohydrate intake with your daily requirements as per the ‘Australian Guide to Healthy eating’ and be aware of your portion sizes and those specified in the guidelines.
In doing this and making healthier choices with the rest of your diet, weight can be well managed. After all, low GI, high fibre carbohydrate foods keep you fuller for longer!
For more information on your carbohydrate requirements, carbohydrate containing foods or any other nutrition related questions – contact the ENT Clinic on 1300 123 368 and make an appointment with our dietitian Belinda Elwin.