The last few years, carbohydrates have become seriously maligned – just like fat in the 90s, and calories a little after that. And just like with those topics, the truth is a little more complicated than some would have you believe. On the one hand, carbohydrates are critical to keep your body and mind running. On the other hand…not all carbs are created equal.
What are carbohydrates?
Let’s start with the basics. Carbohydrates are a type of nutrient naturally found in food. They’re also your body’s number one source of energy to help keep your muscles, brain and organs up and running. Simply put, carbs are something your body needs to function properly.
How do they work?
Your digestive system turns carbohydrates into simple sugars, which are then absorbed into your bloodstream as glucose (aka blood sugar). Then, thanks to a boost of insulin, the glucose enters your body’s cells, where it is used for energy – from physical activity to brain function – or stored in your liver or muscles for later use.
According to the Dietary Reference Intakes set by the Institute of Medicine, you should try to get between 45-65 percent of your calories from carbs. But that doesn’t mean you should load up on empty carbs like cupcakes and white bread – instead, look for food groups that bring something extra to the table.
There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. The two complex types of carbohydrates are starch and fibre. Starch, found in bread, cereals, grains and veggies like potatoes and corn, gets broken down through digestion and used for energy. Fibre, found in fruits, veggies and whole grains, helps keep your blood sugar, cholesterol and digestive system in check.
On the other side of the health spectrum, simple carbs come from sugars – whether naturally occurring in fruits or milk products or refined and added to processed foods. While your body digests sugar the same way no matter where it comes from, natural sources like fruit and veggies are a much healthier choice, as they give you a dose of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Balancing your plate
Working carbohydrates into a balanced diet just takes a little common sense. Surprise, surprise: the less processed or refined a food is, the healthier it is. So, try to seek out whole grains, legumes, fruits and veggies – and limit your intake of white bread, pasta, soda and other processed foods. Not only is this approach healthier, it’s also less fattening. While it’s no surprise that added sugars and refined, “empty” carbs can lead to weight gain, a diet filled with fibre-rich whole grains, fruits and veggies can actually help you maintain a healthy weight.
So you heard it here first: grains are not the enemy. Whole grains are actually an essential part of any diet, not just as a critical source of energy, but also because they’re packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals – all things your body needs to function. Not sure what a whole grain is? It’s any grain that hasn’t been processed to remove any part of the kernel, like brown rice, quinoa or farro.
If fibre helps with weight control, and whole grains have health benefits…why the craze for low carb or no carb diets? Although carbohydrates are the easiest and most convenient source of energy for your body, they are not technically an essential nutrient. If you remove carbs from your diet, your brain can use ketones – which come from fat – for energy. But cutting out carbs means you lose all the other good stuff that comes with them, making it really hard to get all the nutrients you need. The main problem with low carb and no carb diets? For the average person, they’re too restrictive – and just not satisfying enough – to stick with long-term. And cutting out your body’s main source of energy can leave you feeling tired and irritable. So, while some people swear by them, low carb diets aren’t for everyone.