With everything that has been said and written on the subject of “carbs”, it is not a wonder that many people are still a bit confused about carbohydrates and the essential role they play in our bodies. In fact, the topic of carbs and fats seems to have dominated many nutrition related debates, with some nutritionists strongly advocating for these types of foods, and others actively advising against consuming them, and thus the confusion. This article puts together several essential facts that everyone needs to know about carbohydrates.
What are carbs?
Carbohydrates or “carbs” are one of the main types of nutrients in our diet. In fact, it’s one of the three major macronutrients (energy-providing chemical substances) that the human body requires to function properly – the others being fats and proteins.
The name carbohydrate is coined from the fact that, at the chemical level, these nutrients contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Carbohydrates are classified as either simple or complex, depending on their chemical structure, with the most common and abundant types of carbs found in foods being sugars, starches and fiber.
Why do we need carbs?
Carbohydrates are the body’s most important and readily available source of energy, and hence, they make up a very essential and necessary part of a healthy, balanced diet. When consumed, your body’s digestive system converts sugars and starches into glucose, which is then circulated throughout the body, providing energy to your cells, tissues and organs. Any unused glucose that is not immediately needed for energy is stored in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen, or as fat.
Carbohydrate intake helps the body to avoid using proteins, preserving these macronutrients for other essential bodily functions such as repair and growth. In addition to this, fiber; which is not converted to glucose, plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy digestive system, promoting healthier bowel function, and reducing the risk of constipation. When consumed, dietary fiber helps one to achieve a feeling of fullness, which helps to avoid over-eating. Some types of fiber are also known to lower cholesterol levels, as well as reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Which foods contain carbohydrates?
Carbs can be found in a wide range of foods, some of which contain more than one type of carbohydrate. To start with, complex carbohydrates; which are often referred to as starch or starchy foods, occur naturally in many food types and can also be found in processed foods. Foods that contain complex carbohydrates may include, wholegrain cereals, yams, brown and white rice, nuts, oats, bananas, canned and dried beans, cakes, biscuits, barley, lentils, white flour, white pasta, whole meal flour, whole meal pasta, pastries, pizza; and starchy vegetables, such as, corn, green peas, potatoes and parsnips.
On the other hand, simple carbohydrates; which are also called sugars, can be classified as either naturally occurring sugars found naturally in some foods, or added sugars. Foods that contain simple carbohydrates may include, white and brown cane sugar, soft drinks, biscuits, chocolate, cakes, honey and jam , fruits, vegetables, jellies, sweets, and candy bars.
Last but not least, fiber, which is also found in a wide array of foods is categorized as either insoluble fiber or soluble fiber.
• Foods high in soluble fiber include, oat bran, barley, oats, carrots; legumes such as lentils, beans and peas; and fruits like pears, oranges and apples.
• Foods high in insoluble fiber include, brown rice, wheat bran, wholegrain cereals, whole wheat, nuts and seeds; as well as many types of vegetables such as, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes and cabbages.
Good carbs vs. bad carbs
Although knowing the facts about carbohydrates is highly beneficial, what’s even more important is figuring out which ones are best for your overall health. In general, carbs are found in both healthy and unhealthy foods, and it is therefore necessary to know the difference so as to make the right choice when adding carbs to your diet. So, how do you know which is which?
To differentiate between good and bad carbs, you can use the following simple checklist:
Good carbs are:
• High in nutrients and naturally occurring fiber
• Low or moderate in calories
• Devoid of refined grains and refined sugars
• Low in saturated fat and sodium
• Very low (usually zero) in trans fats and cholesterol
Bad carbs are:
• High in calories and refined grains such as, white flour
• Full of refined sugars
• Low in many nutrients as well as fiber
• High in sodium
• Sometimes high in trans fats and cholesterol
• Sometimes high in saturated fat