Are carbohydrates evil?

There is a common misconception that carbohydrates are the source of all evil, at least when it comes to weight loss and the management of certain chronic diseases such as Diabetes.

Carbohydrates (also referred to as saccharides) are the most abundant biomolecule on Earth. Living organisms use carbohydrates as accessible energy to fuel cellular reactions and for structural support inside cell walls.

There are 2 types of carbohydrates:

simple (sugars) and complex (starches and fibre). Simple or complex refers to the amount of sugars in the molecule. Simple carbohydrates can join together to make a chain of more complex carbohydrates. Thus, carbohydrates are made of 1 (monosaccharides), 2 (disaccharides), up to 10 molecules (oligosaccharides), or many molecules of sugars (polysaccharides).

Carbohydrates are present in many foods naturally and/or artificially as added sugars.

Our bodies utilise them in the same way regardless, and cannot distinguish the package they come in, that is to say, whether they were originally simple or complex carbohydrates. This is not to be ignored, as it can have a huge impact on overall health.

Let´s discuss them:

-Simple carbohydrates:

Glucose, fructose and galactose. On their own, they are monosaccharides. Glucose can form a disaccharide (2 sugars together) when combining with another molecule of glucose (glucose+glucose=maltose, or malt sugar), with fructose (glucose+fructose=sucrose, also known as table sugar) or with galactose (glucose+galactose=lactose, the sugar in milk).

Some food sources of simple carbohydrates are table sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, molasses, jams, fruit, fruit drinks, soft drinks and candy. They are the quickest source of energy, as they are very rapidly digested. When they are added or when taken on their own (as with table sugar, candies, soda) they are a source of energy, like all sugars, but have no health promoting nutrients. However, when they are consumed by eating fruit there are nutritional benefits as we are also eating fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. This only applies to eating fruit whole and not to fruit juice because, although vitamins and antioxidants are present in fruit juice, the fibre is removed during the juicing process.

-Complex carbohydrates:

Starch and fibre are by definition polisaccharides; in the case of starch they are chains of many molecules of glucose and in the case of fibres they are chains of cellulose and other carbohydrates we cannot digest. Starch is broken down into simple carbohydrates in the intestines before being absorbed and utilised by the body.

Fibre, unlike starch, cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and instead it passes through the digestive system undigested. Fibre helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger, cholesterol and blood sugar in check. It comes in two varieties, both beneficial to health:

  • Soluble fibre, which dissolves in water, can help lower glucose levels as well as help lower blood cholesterol. Foods with soluble fibre include oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples and blueberries.
  • Insoluble fibre, which does not dissolve in water, can help food move through your digestive system, promoting regularity and helping to prevent constipation. Foods with insoluble fibres include wheat, whole wheat bread, whole grain couscous, brown rice, legumes, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Some food sources of complex carbohydrates are green vegetables, whole grains (oatmeal, pasta, whole grain bread), starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, pumpkin), beans, lentils and peas. They are often rich in fibre, thus satisfying and health promoting. This also makes them more filling, which means they are a good option for weight control. They are also ideal for people with type 2 diabetes because they help manage post-meal blood sugar spikes. They are also often high in vitamins and minerals.

To summarise:

  • Choose complex carbohydrates, rather than simple carbohydrates.
  • Choose carbohydrates that still contain their fibre, like brown rice or brown bread, rather than white rice or white bread, from which the fibre has been stripped away. They make you feel fuller for longer than other food groups such as fat, and they are a more sustained slow-release source of energy, making them a better option for hunger and weight control.
  • Carbohydrates trigger secretion of insulin, and inhibit the metabolism of fat and the production of growth hormone. This means that what is good for weight control is not necessarily good to maintain a good nutritional status.

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Until then, stay well.

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