Misinformation about carbohydrates very often circulates the media and portrays them as ‘the enemy’. In this post we will do some debunking and fact-checking so that we are familiar with what carbohydrates are and why they are so important for us.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the main macronutrients which we need in large quantities to function. Our bodies derive energy from macronutrients like carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Carbohydrates are the only macronutrients that supply energy to the brain, so we cannot afford to cut them out of our diet.
There are three major types of carbohydrates:
· Non-starch polysaccharides (NSPs)
Although they are all carbohydrates, each have their own functions. For example, sugars and starches provide energy to us where as NSPs do not. NSPs are collectively known as fibre which plays a role in digestion and gut health.
Sugars, as you can guess, add a sweet flavour to our palette. They are formed as simple, monosaccharide sugars or disaccharides. Simple sugars are easily broken down by our bodies, as they have a simple structure. It is important to note that most carbohydrates are broken down into glucose by the body. Therefore, the breakdown of simple sugars often leads to a spike in blood glucose levels as they can be broken down quickly.
Main sources of sugar:
· Milk containing lactose
· Fruit juices (also in canned fruit, biscuits, cakes, jams, and ice cream)
There are many different starches. Some that are indigestible and cannot be eaten raw, such as potatoes and flour. Other types of starches are more easily digestible and need less processing or cooking. As well as giving food that starchy flavour, starch provides our bodies with energy, about 4.2 kcal per gram.
Some starchy carbohydrates include:
· Baked beans
· White rice
· White bread
· Wholemeal bread
· Plain white flour
Non-Starch polysaccharides (Fibre)
Non-starch polysaccharides are classified as fibre, which we have all heard of before thanks to cereal boxes. They are made up of polysaccharides which are found in the cell walls of fruit, vegetables, grains, and cereals. These are the soluble forms of fibre we often see advertised on packaging. There are also insoluble forms of fibre which are found in wheat and rice as cellulose in indigestible.
Fibre is absorbent of water and so when in our gut, adds softness and bulk to our faeces. This makes them easy to pass and encourages a healthy digestive flow of our waste. Hard, impassable faeces puts strain on our gut and muscles and can cause indigestion, cramping, constipation, tearing or haemorrhoids. Fibre is an extremely important part of our diet and adequate intake has been linked to several health benefits and the reduced occurrence of digestive issues. It has been linked to the reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and bowel cancer, many of which diseases are rising in occurrence.
Other components of NSPs, such as pectin, are not fibrous and have little effect on the passing of our faeces. Pectin does however influence our blood cholesterol levels, potentially improving it. It is important to not only include NSPs in our diet but to include varied sources. This will ensure we can reap all the benefits and include as many different components as possible of possible.
Good sources of fibre:
· Kidney beans
· Baked beans
· Mixed nuts
· Wholegrain cereal
· All bran cereals
· Wholewheat breakfast biscuits
· Wholemeal bread
· Wholewheat pasta
· Brown rice
· Jacket potatoes with skins
How much carbohydrate should we be eating?
In terms of our entire food plate, carbohydrates should be making up nearly 2/3 of it. 1/3 should be made up of starchy carbohydrates and 1/3 by fruit and vegetables. Combining our intake of carbohydrates sources allows us to get the nutrients from fruit and vegetables as well as fibre and energy.
The reason why carbohydrates have been labelled as ‘bad’ is due to our excess consumption of them. In the right and essential quantities, carbohydrates are extremely beneficial for us. In fact, we cannot live without them.
When we consume carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose and released into the blood where it is stored. This glucose can reach cells and can be utilised as an energy source for various functions. Excess glucose which is not immediately used is converted into glycogen and stored within our liver and muscles. This is our glycogen store which we ‘dip into’ when we require energy for things such as exercise. However, if we consume too many carbohydrates, our glycogen stores become full, and our body is compelled to store glucose elsewhere. This leads to glucose being stored in fat as long-term storage.
To conclude, carbohydrates are not ‘bad’, and they do not, to a certain extent, make you fat. They should not be avoided for this reason as glucose is not stored in fat when carbohydrates are eaten in the right quantities. As they are essential for our function, they should also be essential in our diet.