Carbohydrates in Foods

All about carbohydrates in foods, good carbs vs bad carbs, recommended daily carbohydrate intake, simple and complex carbohydrate foods.

What are carbohydrates?

Understanding types of carbohydrates is key to a successful weight loss journey. Carbohydrates or carbs, together with protein and fat, are the three most important nutrients for our body to function. Carbohydrate molecules consists of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Carbohydrates in foods supply the energy we need for functions such as our heart-beat, digestion and breathing, daily physical activity and exercise. Carbohydrate food sources include: fruit and vegetables, grains, beans, dairy products, sugar and sweets.

Digestion of carbohydrates

There are 4 calories in 1 gram of carbohydrates. Our body uses carbs as a fuel. Once eaten, carbs are turned into sugar (glucose) in our body, which then enters the blood stream. When the blood sugar levels soar, a hormone called insulin is released. Insulin flushes the glucose or blood sugar into cells, where it’s converted into energy. Any extra blood sugar left over from this process, is stored as fat.

What are the benefits of carbohydrates?

Apart from being the main source of energy, high carb foods are an excellent and sometimes the only source of many vital nutrients, such as: fiber, vitamins C, E and the majority of B vitamins, carotenoids, essential phytochemicals, potassium and other minerals. Diets low in any of these nutrients, leads to health problems such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure and heart disease. Carbs are an important part of a healthy diet.

What is the recommended carbohydrate intake?

The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get 45 to 65% of total energy (calories) from carbohydrates. The FAO and WHO recommend 55 to 75% of calories come from carbs, but only 10% from sugars or simple carbohydrates.

Complex carbs vs simple carbs

All carbohydrates in foods on a chemical level are divided into two types: simple and complex carbs. Carbohydrates with a simple molecular structure include sugars: fructose, dextrose, glucose and sucrose.

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They are quickly absorbed and are thought to cause rapid fluctuation in blood sugar levels, the digestion process is rapid and you are more likely to feel hungry again very soon. When eaten often, and in large quantities, as well as weight gain, simple carbs also increase the risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease. Simple carbohydrate foods are refined grains and sugars, white bread, white rice, pastries, sweets, sugared sodas and juice.

Complex carbohydrates are made from three or more linked sugars, and are thought to take longer to digest, although you will be satisfied for longer. When eaten in moderation, they stabilize the blood sugar, which helps to prevent hypoglycaemia and diabetes; unless, that is, they are eaten in excess. Generally, they are less fattening. On the list of good carbs are fresh fruit, vegetables, whole wheat bread and whole grains, oats, brown rice, whole wheat pasta and legumes.

Fiber is a carbohydrate, which cannot be digested and absorbed by the body. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber helps to lower bad cholesterol, blood sugars and keep hunger under control. Insoluble fiber helps to prevent constipation.

Carbohydrate glycemic index and carbohydrate load

For a long time complex carbs have thought to be “good” carbs, while simple carbs are thought to be “bad” for you. But it turns out to be not as simple as that. Research has proven that some complex carbohydrates such as French fries and the starch in white bread are converted into blood sugar as quickly as simple carbs. On the contrary, fruit sugar or fructose is a simple carbohydrate, but it does not affect the blood sugar much. The glycemic index (GI) is a new system, which classifies carbohydrates in foods based on how fast and how much they increase the blood sugar in comparison to pure glucose. According to this system, foods with a score of 70 or higher have a high glycemic index and cause a rapid spike in blood sugar; foods with a count of 55 and below are low glycemic index foods as they are digested more slowly and cause a lower and gradual fluctuation in blood sugar.

Diets rich in high glycemic index foods have been associated with the increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer. Foods with low glycemic index assist with weight loss, keep type 2 diabetes under control and are good for many aspects of our health.

The only downside of the new glycemic index system is that it does not tell us how much digestible carbohydrates it delivers. For example, watermelon has a very high glycemic index, but watermelon is full of water and has a very small amount of carbs per serving. That is why the glycemic load (GL) was developed. A glycemic load takes into account the quantity of carbohydrates in foods and the effect on blood sugars. It is calculated by multiplying the glycemic index of the food, by the amount of carbs it contains. GL of 20 or more is high, 11-19 medium, 10 and under is low.

Do carbs make you fat?

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Carbohydrates from grains and sugars have been blamed for the obesity epidemic in the US, which affects more than 60% of the adult population, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

It is well known that refined carbohydrates such as white flour baked goods and other refined grain products and sugar, makes the blood sugar levels soar. A rise in blood sugar levels triggers the release of the fat storage hormone called insulin. Insulin reduces the blood sugar levels very quickly. When the sugar level rapidly drops, we feel weak, hungry and faint (a medical term for low blood sugar is hypoglycaemia), so we feel like we MUST have more sweet foods to boost our sugar levels, then we feel better for a while, before the insulin kicks in again to lower our blood sugar and makes us feel weak, hungry and anxious once more. This cycle goes on and on. Eventually, our body can’t cope with so much sugar; the pancreas becomes too stressed and may fail to produce sufficient insulin to control the sugar. Additionally, the cells of the body tend to become less responsive to insulin, fat is burned more slowly, and a portion of the sugar excess converts into fat, to be stored in the body. Obesity as a result of chronic high blood sugar predisposes one to several illnesses such as diabetes, infections, heart disease, etc.

Reacting to this connection between refined carbs consumption and poor health, some of the population then decide to take on low carb high protein diets. And yes, these diets work and many people have lost weight, but research has shown that people who started one of these popular high protein low carb meal plans found it difficult to continue with it for more than a few months. It is difficult to maintain a diet that contains only half the carbohydrates required for healthy functioning of the body. Over 30 years of research studies all agree, that high protein consumption greatly increases risk for bone loss and kidney failure.

What carbs to eat to lose weight?

Eat more fruits and non-starchy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cucumber and tomatoes. You should include whole grains in their unprocessed state, as processed grains have been milled and refined, have been stripped from their bran and germ, and, as a result, have a higher glycemic index than whole grains.  Eat more beans and other legumes - they not only contain carbohydrates, but are also a good protein source. In general, choose the foods from low glycemic food list and follow the slow carb diet.

How to choose healthy carbs?

Choose nutrient packed carbohydrate rich foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, milk and milk products. Selecting these foods within your daily calorie requirements will help you to stay healthy and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Avoid foods that have added sugars such as cakes, doughnuts, cookies, etc., they are normally low in nutrients and high in calories.

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Eat more of the following healthy carbohydrates:

  • Fresh, dried, or frozen fruits rather than fruit juices.
  • Dark green vegetables such as broccoli, kale; orange vegetables such as pumpkin, carrots, winter squash. 
  • Dry beans and peas should be consumed a few times per week as they are good source of fiber.
  • Whole grains such as whole grain cereals, crackers, bread, pasta, brown and wild rice should be eaten at least 3 oz daily. 
  • Replace potato with brown or wild rice, quinoa, bulgur, buckwheat, barley, millet, sorghum.

If you eat a 2000 calorie diet, your carbohydrates in foods each day should consist of:  2 to 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 to 2.5 cups of fruit and 6 to 8 oz of grains (minimum of 4 oz to be whole grains). Additionally you should eat legumes and nuts and seeds 4 or 5 times per week.

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