You may have heard or read about the need to severely curtail the carbohydrates you consume if you want to lose weight. There are even diets out there that cut out carbohydrates almost completely. But this is a food group that a healthy body cannot do without. But there are “good” and “bad” carbohydrates — and it’s important that you know what they are and how they affect your body.
An introduction to carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They are a vital part of any healthy diet, and for long-term weight-loss and general well-being, they should never be avoided altogether.
A lot of nutritionists and doctors label carbs as “good” or “bad”. The term is used as a simple way of classifying carb-rich foods based on their chemical structure and how they affect the body.
A better description of “good” carbohydrates is “complex carbohydrates.” These foods include whole grains and legumes, which have longer chains of sugar molecules. This makes them harder for the body to break down and absorb. The body burns complex carbohydrates slowly, which provides a source of energy that lasts longer.
What are simple carbohydrates?
Simple carbohydrates have smaller sugar molecule chains, which means the body processes them more quickly than complex carbohydrates. They are higher in sugar and much lower in fibre. While these carbs provide a relatively quick energy boost, they don’t provide the body with energy over several hours in the way complex carbs do.
The main simple carbohydrates include:
- Fizzy drinks
- White sugar
- White rice
- White pasta
- White bread
Technically speaking, most fruits and vegetables are classed as simple carbohydrates. However, because of the high fibre content in these foods, the rate at which the carbs are burned by the body is slowed down considerably.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few simple carbohydrates from time to time. However, too many people rely on them as the main element of their diet, instead of relying the slow-burning, longer-lasting complex carbohydrates.
What are complex carbohydrates?
Complex carbohydrates release energy slowly. A breakfast rich in these carbs will provide you with energy for several hours. They also have a relatively low glycemic load, which means lower amounts of sugar are released into the bloodstream at a more consistent rate.
Making the switch to complex carbohydrates is perhaps one of the simplest ways of improving your diet quickly. Instead of eating white bread, eat whole grain bread instead. Instead of using white rice in recipes, use brown rice. Instead of eating sugary cereals in the morning, eat porridge made with whole oats.
It’s also important to check the label before buying processed foods or ready-meals. Anything with “whole oat” or “whole wheat” as a main ingredient should be rich in complex carbohydrates. Unfortunately, a lot of processed foods are sweetened with processed sugars, which pile on the calories and don’t provide the same long-lasting energy as complex carbs.
Examples of complex carbohydrates include:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Whole grain bread
- Whole grain pasta
- Brown rice
Combining a diet rich in fibre and complex carbohydrates ensures that the body doesn’t absorb too much sugar too quickly. High blood sugar levels over a long period of time can lead to a range of health issues, including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
What should you be eating?
As a simple rule of thumb, WebMD recommends people should be getting between 45 percent and 65 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates. For the maximum benefits, carbs should be consumed with lots of high-fibre foods. Men should be eating around 38 grams of fibre a day, and women should be consuming around 25 grams
When you make buying decisions in the supermarket, it’s important to know that “sugars” on a label usually refers to all types of sugar. Natural sugars such as fructose and fructose have nutritional value, whereas added sugars such as corn syrup are there merely to provide extra sweetness. You may need to do a little research to find out how much of the sugars in processed foods are from complex carbs.
Apart from providing you with a sudden burst of energy, simple carbohydrates (the bad ones) don’t really do much for your body other than increase blood sugar levels and make weight-gain more likely. They are usually added to processed foods to make things taste better, which modifies the preferences and tastes of consumers over time. And foods labelled as “low fat” are often laden with sugar to make up for the loss of flavour. This is one of the reasons why we’re facing an obesity epidemic in Europe.
If you make just one change to your diet, switching from simple to complex carbohydrates should be it. Just a few substitutions here and there could drastically boost your energy levels while lowering your blood sugar and cholesterol levels.