Carbs, carbs, carbs…. Where do to begin?! Low carb, high carb, no carb… “Oh my CARB”, it’s no wonder we are all so confused. Well not to worry! Our expert Nutritionist Lucy-Ann is here to demystify the world of carbohydrates and fully explain their role as a major energy source and our general wellbeing.
So what are carbs exactly?
Let's start by understanding what “carbohydrates” are… in food terms. Carbohydrates equate to all starchy and sugary foods, and in wholefood terms, that’s fruit, vegetables, grains and cereals, with beans and seeds providing some as well.
The best carbohydrates are simply those closest to their original or natural state, where they are the least refined or tampered with. Thinking about all carbohydrates in this way will help you differentiate and better understand “good” and “bad” carbs (or refined vs. unrefined) and you’ll immediately be able to pick out the kind you want to be eating, and enjoying.
All the following foods (healthy or not) are examples of carbohydrates… sugar, jam, bread, crackers, sweets, cakes, biscuits, pasta, rice, potatoes, chips, fresh fruit, dried fruit, vegetables, and breakfast cereals. Pretty much any food that ultimately breaks down and provides the body with single molecules of sugar (e.g. glucose, fructose etc.) is a carbohydrate!
What are the main reasons we need carbohydrates?
- To provide a quick (and preferred) fuel source for the body’s cells
- To store energy in the muscles and liver that we can draw upon in times of need
- For muscles to contract
- To provide fuel for the brain
The best carbohydrates for health and energy
Before we take a look at the carbohydrates that will give you lasting energy and help you burn more fat for energy, it’s worth looking at the differences between simple carbs and complex carbs.
Simple versus complex
Simple carbohydrates get digested quickly in the gut, and “release” their sugar into the bloodstream very quickly. This often causes a surge in blood sugar and in the hormone insulin, which then shunts the excess sugar into cells which if not used, is converted to body fat.
Essentially, simple carbs are also known as simple sugars, and it is this simplicity which makes them easier for the body to break down. The downside to these is that they give a more temporary boost to energy, rather than something that can be digested over a longer period of time.
Taking the above into account, simple carbs you’ll want to avoid are any foods made with white flour and refined sugar, which include all refined bakery foods, sugary drinks, sodas or canned fizzy drinks, and “fat-free” foods that are often loaded with sugar.
Healthy “sweet” carbs to eat include fresh fruit such as apples, raspberries, blueberries, pears, bananas, and other dried fruit such as figs (dried or fresh), apricots, dates, or other wholefoods. If you’re looking to cut down the calories, choose low sugar fruit (e.g. apples, berries, pears, fresh figs) if you want to maximize your weight loss efforts.
Complex carbs are typically starches formed by longer chains of molecules, meaning that they take longer to break down in the body and therefore provide better nutrition. This includes wholegrain starches such as brown rice or bread which are more beneficial than their simple/white counterparts. Other examples of complex carbohydrates include oatmeal, legumes, soy milk and all vegetables.
So keep it complex!
Each meal needs to have some carbs, so instead of the white pasta and rice, opt instead for complex starch (brown basmati rice, quinoa, millet, oats, or barley), and eat plenty of vegetables. You may even want to replace some of your “starch” intake with vegetables, or a good variety of salad and leafy greens.
Many “wet”, fibrous and low calorie carbohydrates such as broccoli, cauliflower, courgette, squash, carrots, cucumbers, sweet peppers, tomatoes, celery, fennel, peas and cabbage are great “fillers” for those counting their calories and contain water, fibre and essential vitamins, minerals and plant nutrients that hydrate the body and nourish the body’s cells.
Another effective dietary strategy to help with fat loss is to regularly replace your portion of starch at a meal (i.e. rice, pasta, or potato) with a portion of legumes. Try a large spoonful or two of cooked puy lentils, chickpeas, butter beans, mung beans or aduki beans. All are filling, tasty and so nutritious. These foods naturally provide a great balance of protein and carbohydrates that are perfect for keeping blood sugar levels in check. By making this simple change, you eat less carbohydrates (but still enough to fuel and feel full), more vegetable protein and more fibre. Nutrient intake increases and in health terms, you gain so much!
So there you have it - complex carbs are the way to go; they keep you fuller for longer, have much better nutrition and will leave you feeling happy and healthy throughout the day!