The Truth about Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates get kind of a bad rap in the world of nutrition, but how important are they? A lot of confusion exists regarding the role carbohydrates play in proper nutrition, partly because fad diets tend to exclude them. The truth is carbohydrates are an important macronutrient – one your body needs to function properly. Like most decisions in nutrition, consuming carbs requires a little forethought and planning. So what is the truth about carbs?
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients that exist in food – the other two are protein and fat. They are also your body’s source of fuel, because they are broken down into glucose during digestion. There are three forms of carbohydrates:
- Sugar – This is the simplest form of naturally occurring carbohydrates. Simple sugar is found in milk, fruit, and some vegetables. When you add that teaspoon of sugar to your morning coffee, you are adding a carbohydrate.
- Starch – Starch is sometimes referred to as complex sugar, and it’s what most people think of as a carbohydrate. While simple sugar contains just one molecule, starch has a few of them bonded together to form a complex molecular structure. You find starch in fruits, vegetables, and grains.
- Fibre – Fibre is the densest of the carbohydrates. It is found naturally in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
The body takes complex carbohydrates and breaks them down into simple sugars that are then absorbed into cells for energy.
How Carbohydrates Fit into a Healthy Diet
Carbohydrates are your main source of fuel, so cutting them out of your diet is like trying to drive your car with no petrol. Everything you do — from your first breath in the morning to your evening run before bed — relies on this energy source. NHS England recommends you build your diet around carbohydrates instead of excluding them. One third of every meal should contain “healthy” or complex carbs.
When picking your carbs, stick to jacketed potatoes, wholegrain pasta, and brown rice but cut back on simple sugars like puddings. About 50 percent of your daily food energy should come from carbohydrates.
What about Carbohydrates and Weight Gain?
If carbs are good for you, why do fad diets exclude them? There is a correlation between weight gain and carb intake, but the food is not the problem. Carbohydrates are energy, and if you don’t burn them, your body stores them as fat.
When you cut back on carbs, your body dips into that fat reserve for energy. This is why cutting carbs can lead to weight loss. But this is a temporary solution, and it’s not a very healthy one at that. Your body will always strive to save energy – it’s a survival mechanism – so a drastic reduction in carbs might work initially. After a while, however, your energy levels will drop and you will still gain fat. Once you start eating carbs again, your body will respond by creating extra fat to keep you from “starving” in the future. This is why so many people who lose weight on a fad diet gain it back, plus a little extra.
Successful dieters understand how critical carbs are to overall nutrition. The trick is to increase your need for energy by exercising, so you burn all the carbs you eat. The UK health system recommends you eat the following:
- Plenty of complex carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, and wholegrain pasta
- Plenty of fruits and vegetables – at least five portions a day
- A smaller amount of protein-rich foods like lean meat, fish, nuts and beans – around 20 percent of your total diet
- Reduced-fat dairy
- Some saturated fat
If you picture each meal on a plate, a third of it should contain fruits and vegetables, a third should have starchy food, and the remaining third should be split up into protein, dairy and healthy fats.
Good eating is a lifelong process, not a get-thin-quick scheme. Eat the right amount of carbs, get plenty of exercise, and factor in some dietary supplements to ensure you get your essential nutrients to enjoy a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
NHS Choices, Eating a Balanced Diet, March 2016
NHS Choices, The Eatwell Guide, March 2016
Mayo Clinic, Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit into a Healthy Diet, May 2014
Writer’s Bio: Darla F. is a full-time freelance writer and healthcare professional who specializes in helping agencies meet their goals by developing creative and engaging content.
- Darla Ferrara