With the rise and fall of fads and diets over the last decade, if there’s one food group that’s gotten a bad rep, it’s definitely been carbohydrates. From low carb, to no carb, everyone has been blaming these guys, but there’s much more to carbs than meets the eye.
Most naturally occurring foods contain a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fats.
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients along with proteins and fat that our body needs to function properly, and most naturally occurring foods contain a combination of all three of these macronutrients in varying proportions.
While all three macronutrients can provide the body with energy, they each have primary roles that they are most needed for. The main role of carbohydrates is to give the body energy, while Proteins are primarily used to make amino acids, which help build and maintain muscle function. Fats on the other hand are broken down into fatty acids that line cells walls and help make hormones that regulate the proper functioning of the body. If you use protein or fat as a substitute to carbohydrates, you inhibit them from properly performing their primary function.
https://makingsenseofsugar.com/healthy-eating/calorie-count/ (chart idea to show calories in 1 gram of each kind of macronutrient)
Whether you are hitting the gym hard or are sitting at your desk, your body still needs energy, and carbohydrates are tasked with providing your body with this energy. All that changes is the amount of energy you need, according to your activity level. Whether you need to consume 1000 or 2000 calories a day, up to 60% of your caloric intake still needs to come from carbohydrates.
How carbohydrates work?
Once the carbohydrates you eat are digested, they are converted into glucose, a form of sugar, which then enters your bloodstream, making your blood glucose level rise. As a response to this rise, the pancreas produce insulin which helps cells absorb the glucose and convert it to energy, which is in turn expended during every single process, including simply breathing.
It is important to note however, that not all carbs were created equal.
What’s in those carbs?
There are primarily three kinds of carbohydrates found in the food we eat, namely Sugar, starch and fiber.
The sugary delights
Sugars are the simplest form of carbohydrate and most of them are monosaccharides or disaccharides, the basic building blocks of carbohydrates, these are broken down by the body easily and absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly. Natural sugars are found in fruits and dairy products, and artificially added sugars, called free sugars are found in candy, sodas and snacks.
While all sugars contain the same number of calories, what makes a fruit healthier than a soda? The answer lies in the fact that the amount of sugar that naturally occurs in a fruit is far less than the amount that is artificially added into sodas. Fruits also contain other forms of carbohydrates such as fiber and starch, along with other vital nutrients.
To give you a clearer picture, to get the sugar contained in 1 glass of orange juice, you would need to eat around 3 oranges. Because drinking a glass of juice is so much easier than eating 3 oranges, you might consume more than you normally would have. The reason doctors recommend you eat whole fruits rather than drink fruit juice is because this way you will be consuming a lot less sugar, while also benefiting from the fiber content that fruits are so rich in.
The starchy staples
The next, more complex form of carbohydrate is starch. Starch is a polysaccharide that is naturally produced by plants as a way of storing energy. Starch forms the largest part of our carbohydrate diet, in the form of potatoes, rice, roti or pasta. Because it is a polysaccharide, starch needs to be broken down before it is absorbed into the bloodstream, and because starch takes longer to digest than sugar, it increases the blood glucose levels more gradually.
The fibrous satisfaction
The third kind of carbohydrate is fiber. Fiber or roughage as it is commonly called is that part of food derived from plants, that our body cannot digest. While fiber cannot be digested, it can be further divided into soluble and insoluble fiber. Fiber acts as food for the good bacteria in our gut, and provides a host of health benefits. In recent times, the benefits of a fiber rich diet have been spoken about at great length, be it in lowering cholesterol levels or regulating blood sugar. Fiber rich foods help you feel full more easily while at the same time, lowering your blood sugar effectively.
The right kind of carbs
While dietary guidelines indicate that a healthy diet must contain anywhere from 45% to 65% of carbohydrates, it is essential to choose the source of our carbohydrates correctly.
For instance, white rice or refined rice contains much less fiber content than unpolished rice or wholegrain rice, because it loses its bran and wheat germ layers that give it most of its fiber. While the starch content of both is the same, simply because unpolished rice has more fiber, it takes longer for the body to digest, giving it a lower glycemic index, hence helping the body better regulate blood sugar.
When naturally occurring carbohydrates are refined, the delicate balance of sugar, starch and fiber is broken, leaving us with a nutritionally unbalanced food. This is why it is important to consume wholegrains, and fruits rather than fruit juices or refined grains.
What is a low carb diet?
Because most naturally occurring foods contain carbohydrates, choosing options that contain a lower ratio of protein to carbohydrate means that you don’t overload on carbs. For instance, it is a common misconception in India that dals or lentils are only rich in protein, whereas every 100gm of dal contains around 46 gm of carbohydrates and around 23 gm of protein, making the ratio of protein to carbohydrate around 1:2. This is why we often get a carb overload by pairing dal with carb rich foods like rice and roti.
It is important to choose foods with a lower proportional value of carbohydrates, such as lentils, lean meat, fresh vegetables like cassava and fruits to make sure you get your only dietary requirement of carbohydrates you need.
When considering a diet for weight management, including fiber rich foods and more complex forms of carbohydrates such as polysaccharides can make you feel fuller with less, while also ensuring that blood glucose is maintained at a constant level.
In a healthy diet, there can be no substitute for carbohydrates. All that matters is the kind of carbs you choose and how much of it you consume. So, the next time carbs give you anxiety, armed with this knowledge, you can choose to stay healthy.