Carbohydrates refer to any large group of organic compounds naturally occurring in foods and living tissues that consist of sugars, starch, and cellulose. These organic compounds also contain hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio as water and can be broken down to release energy in your body. It is one of the three macronutrients that provide the energy that your body needs to function. The other two being fat and protein.
Therefore, carbohydrates are necessary for your body to continue to run and function. However, carbohydrates have taken a rather bad rap these days with the rising popularity of the low carbs diets such as the Atkins diet and the ketogenic diet, which focus on consuming a high fat, adequate protein, and low carbohydrate diet. These low carb diets promise to lower your blood sugars and regulate your insulin levels as a result of consuming fewer carbohydrates and thereby helping you to lose weight. However, these diets will only make promising sense if your body composition is susceptible to insulin levels imbalance issues. In other words, carbohydrates may not be bad for everyone and it is important to distinguish the types of carbohydrates and making sure that you only consume the healthy types that are essential for your body.
Types of Carbohydrates
In other words, consuming carbohydrates may not be bad for everyone, including you. And it matters what type of carbohydrates you are consuming. Dietary carbohydrates can be classified into three main types:
- Sugars are short-chain carbohydrates such as glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose. This type of carbohydrates is commonly found in sweet foods that you are familiar with.
- Starches, on the other hand, are long-chain carbohydrates that are eventually broken down into glucose in your digestive system. This type of carbohydrates is commonly found in beans and starchy root vegetables such as potatoes and other whole grains such as rice.
- Fiber is the third group of carbohydrates and is only found in plant foods. It is, in fact, the indigestible part of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. [ 2, 3 ]
The Health Purpose of Carbohydrates
As you can see, depending on the type of carbohydrates you are talking about, they serve different purposes in your overall body function and can have quite different impacts on your health when consumed in excess.
As mentioned, when broken down into its most basic form i.e. glucose, the main purpose of carbohydrates can be regarded as providing energy for your body. If your activity levels do not use up all the energy that the carbohydrates you consumed are able to provide, they can be turned into fat (i.e. stored energy) for later use. This “later use” if not used can become stored fat.
Fiber, on the other hand, does not get broken down into glucose and therefore does not provide your body with energy directly. However, it does feed the friendly bacteria in your digestive system and encourage healthy bowel movement.
Eat This Carb, Not That Carb
Your body needs energy to function and let you get on with your day effectively and efficiently. Hence, consuming some healthy or more commonly known as complex carbohydrates is essential. Complex carbohydrates refer to starches that your body takes time to break down into glucose and these are the good carbohydrates because the longer it takes your body to break down into energy (i.e. glucose), the longer it can keep you feeling fuller. Healthy food sources of complex carbohydrates that you can start including in your diet include starchy vegetables such as beans and potatoes and whole grains.
Eating whole grains allows your body to get all the nutrients that whole grains have to offer because they contain the bran, germ, and endosperm, where each part containing different types of nutrients that are essential for your body. If you only consume the refined version (i.e. white) of a grain food, it contains only the endosperm which is the main source of the starch and miss out on a whole lot of other vitamins and minerals that are found in the bran and the germ of the grain. 
Fiber not only helps to make you feel full and satisfied after a meal, but it also helps your body maintain good digestive health and colon health. A diet high in both soluble and insoluble fiber has been shown to aid in reducing your cholesterol levels as well. Good food sources of dietary fiber include beans and legumes, all kinds of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
How to Incorporate Healthy Carbs into Your Diet
As you might have noticed by now, there are a few foods that are excellent sources for both complex starch and fiber. You can start to incorporate healthy carbohydrates into your diet by adding whole grains, vegetables such as potatoes, leafy greens, and beans into your diet. For example, replace part of your regular pasta with whole grain pasta. There are many different options at your local supermarkets these days, from pasta made with quinoa flour to pasta made with lentil flour. Experiment with different types until you find the one with the flavor and texture that suits your palate best. You can also look at replacing your white rice with brown rice or quinoa.
Other ways to start incorporating healthy carbohydrates into your diet includes replacing some of your meat proteins with beans and legumes. Beans and legumes are great protein sources for vegetarians and they are great food sources for fiber and complex carbohydrates as well. So why not start choosing beans as your protein source at least 2 meals a week?
Choosing the right foods is important in ensuring you only consume the healthy and essential carbohydrates. Preparation methods of these foods are equally important. For example, steaming is a better preparation method than deep-frying because deep-frying introduces more saturated fat into the final dish. Gentle cooking methods such as blanching and braising will help to preserve more of the nutrients found in the food ingredient than harsher cooking methods such as deep-frying and roasting.
Generally speaking, gentler cooking methods usually also takes less time and can make meal preparation and clean-up feel so much more manageable. I have recently invested in a nice multi-layer electric steamer and I cannot imagine trying to eat a healthier diet without it anymore. Weeknight meal preparations are now a breeze because I can simply cut up some vegetables and pop them onto one layer, then lay a fish fillet on another layer and some whole grain rice on the third layer and steam them all together. I use the steamer for reheating foods too instead of my microwave now.
Clarification of Recent Bad Rap on Carbs
Reducing the number of carbohydrates, specifically simple carbohydrates can indeed help with your quick weight loss efforts. Eliminating or significantly reducing the number of sugary drinks and sugary foods from your diet can definitely help bring the scale down and reduce your waistline. Hence the recent rise in popularity of low-carb diets such as Atkins, Ketogenic and Paleo diets and the bad rap on carbohydrates in general.
However, as mentioned throughout this article, it is important to differentiate between different types of carbohydrates. Not all carbohydrates are bad for you. Complex carbohydrates and fiber are actually essential for a healthy functioning body. Replacing carbohydrates, especially the complex healthy ones with fats and higher fat sources of protein could increase your intake of saturated fat and thereby increase your risks for heart disease as a result of potentially higher levels of cholesterol in your blood. Also, when your body is low on glucose, your body will break down stored fat to convert into energy; a process which causes a build-up of ketones in your blood, resulting in ketosis. And ketosis caused by a low carbohydrate diet can be linked to headaches, weakness, nausea, dehydration, irritability, and dizziness.
Therefore the moral of the carb story is, be picky about the type of carbs you consume and as always, moderation is key. Consume a balanced diet and with exercise, your body will thank you for it.
If you are still on the fence about good carbs vs bad carbs and need help to get it straight, CONTACT ME so we can get the right type of carbohydrates in your diet to boost your health.
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- Types of Carbohydrates.
- The Nutrition Source: Carbohydrates.
- Background on Carbohydrates & Sugars.
- Good Carbs, Bad Carbs: Why Carbohydrates Matter to You.