Carbohydrates – Villains or Heroes?
Let’s talk about the most feared nutrient, carbohydrates. Different opinions leave us confused and worried about this misunderstood macronutrient. Here’s the truth:
Carbohydrates are important in a balanced diet, appetite regulation and weight management. They provide most of the body’s energy, and improve physical and cognitive performance.
Often carbs are thought of as bread and pasta, but they are also found in dairy products, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, and sweets. They are made up of three components; sugar, starch, and fibre. Simple Carbohydrates are sugar, while Complex Carbohydrates have starch and fibre. Therefore, not all carbs are created equal. The poison is in the type of carb, and the quantity consumed.
Simple carbs should be limited. They include sweeteners, sweets, fruit juice, soda, and snack foods such as chips and many crackers. Refined grains such as white bread and pasta should also be reduced. The above foods contain no fibre, or their fibre has been removed. This causes them to break down easily and quickly, glucose in the blood to spike, and increased insulin production. The result can be an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and weight gain.
Complex carbs have a more complicated chemical structure. They include starchy vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes. They have fibre as well as other vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. It takes longer to digest these foods, requires less insulin, and therefore has much less of an impact on blood sugar. Research suggests that many complex carbs will help to control type 2 diabetes and promote satiety, aiding in weight-loss.
Where does fruit and dairy fit in? Fruit is often referred to as a simple carb, however they also contain fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. It is important to consume a variety of colorful fruit. Simple carbs do occur naturally in dairy products, however in moderation, dairy can be a healthy addition to a balanced diet.
Restrictive diets come with negative side effects, both physically and mentally, and most often are not necessary. The body may not get enough of the nutrients it needs, resulting in vitamin or mineral deficiencies, or low energy and fatigue. Without carbs, there is also a high-risk inadequate fibre intake. Fibre is important for regulating and maintaining healthy bowels, for example relieving constipation. It will help achieve a healthy weight and control blood sugar and cholesterol.
Eliminating carbs is not sustainable. “Forbidding” so many foods is incredibly hard to stick to, and often results in yo-yo dieting. This process of body weight fluctuation (going up and down) can cause gaining more weight in the future than was lost, a higher body fat percentage that is harder to lose, increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, and a lifetime of frustration.
There is no evidence to support that eating a very low carb diet long-term is safe or healthy. The key is finding the right carbs and watching portion sizes, not eliminating them completely. Choose complex carbs that are higher in fibre, and keep total carb intake to about 45% of your calorie consumption for the day.
Rather than eliminating foods completely, and following restrictive diets, work on developing mindful eating habits, such as listening to the hunger signals your body is giving you.