BY: Elizda Hanekom / DATE: January 2019
DATE OF NEXT REVIEW: January 2023
Carbohydrates are always in the spotlight and most often portrayed in a negative light. It’s a hotly-debated topic, especially when it comes to weight loss diets. The picture painted around carbohydrates is that they are “bad” and this has left many people confused about carbohydrates and their vital role for our health including maintaining a healthy weight. It is important to know that you get different types of carbohydrates and that not all carbs are created equally. It’s all about the type, quality and quantity of carbs within your diet – let’s take a closer look.
- What are carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches and fibres found in fruits, vegetables, grains and milk products. Carbs are one of the three macronutrients needed for proper body functioning, the other two being proteins and fats, these are required in relatively large amounts in our diet1,2. Carbs are our body’s main source of energy. They are called carbohydrates simply because they contain a carbon, hydrogen and oxygen at a chemical level1.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH); the recommended daily amount (RDA) of carbs for adults is 135 grams. The NIH however recommends that everyone should have his or her own carbohydrate goal according to individualised needs1. Carb intake for majority of people should be between 45 and 65 percent of total calories3.
- The important role of carbohydrates
Carbohydrates provide energy for our central nervous system and working muscles, we need to eat carbs for vitality and productivity. They also prevent protein from being used as an energy source which helps facilitate fat metabolism1-3. Fruits, vegetables and wholegrains are rich sources of vitamins and minerals playing many important roles in our bodies. Carbohydrates also contain fibre which helps keep our digestive system healthy and decreases the risk for countless diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers4,5.
- Simple vs. complex carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are classified into two groups namely simple or complex. The biggest difference between these two forms is the chemical structure and how quickly the sugar gets digested and absorbed.
- These are your monosaccharides and disaccharides, consisting of just one or two molecules.
- Generally speaking these are digested and absorbed far quicker and easier than complex carbs. They therefore provide you with rapid energy, but you will feel hungrier quicker.
- Examples: pastries, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, sugars, candies, white (bread, pasta, rice etc.)
- These are your polysaccharides, having three or more molecules.
- These consist of long chains of sugar molecules and are digested and absorbed slower therefore keeping you fuller for longer.
- Examples: vegetables, wholegrains, beans, peas and pulses.
- All about fibre
Fibre found in most carbohydrates is crucial for digestion and helps promote healthy bowel function. It also decreases the risk for many diseases including coronary heart disease and diabetes. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends a fibre intake of 25-30g/day. Fibre is mostly found in fruits, vegetables, seeds and grains.
- What should I know about Glycaemic Index (GI)
According to the GI Foundation of South Africa (GIFSA), the Glycaemic Index (GI) is a system that ranks carbohydrate containing foods based on their physiological effect on blood glucose (blood sugar) levels6. A food that is high GI will therefore release sugar quickly into the blood stream and provide rapid energy. A food that is low GI will release sugar slower and more steadily, providing slow sustained energy for a longer period therefore keeping you fuller for longer.
- How to choose carbohydrates
Although there is a place for all types of carbohydrates, to ensure you are making the healthiest choice we need to try avoid refined, high sugar options and instead have high fibre options. These will keep us fuller for longer and help keep our digestive system healthy. This is easy to do – instead of white options choose brown – whole-wheat is even better. We also want to choose low GI carbohydrates, these give us slow sustained energy levels and keeps us fuller for a longer period – yay, double the benefits! Look out for the low GI claim on products.
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No macronutrient has been given the bad press as much as the humble carbohydrate and most FAD diets shine the same negative light on carbs. However, without carbs the human race would probably have died out many years ago. Carbs are the staple food for many diets around the world. If you are choosing the right types and eating the correct quantity, carbohydrates are a very important part of a balanced, healthy diet.
- Szalay, J. (2017, July 14). Live Science. Retrieved from What Are Carbohydrates?: https://www.livescience.com/51976-carbohydrates.html
- Natural Balance Foods. (n.d.). Retrieved from What are macro and micronutrients: https://www.naturalbalancefoods.com/community/dietary-needs/what-are-macronutrients-micronutrients/
- Mahan, L., Escott-Stump, S., & Raymond, J. (2012). Krause’s Food & the Nutrition Care Process 13th Edition. Elsivier.
- NHS. (2018, December 18). Retrieved from NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/why-we-need-to-eat-carbs/
- Iliades, C. (2010, June 26). Everyday Health. Retrieved from Why Carbohydrates Are Important for Your Diet: https://www.everydayhealth.com/weight/why-carbohydrates-are-important-for-your-diet.aspx
- Glycemic Index Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved from GIFSA: http://www.gifoundation.com/