Cut through the confusion — get to know carbohydrates

Last week, we looked at proteins and what they are made of; this week, we are examining carbohydrates: what they are, their role within our body, and our health. What foods are considered carbohydrates, and what is the difference between refined carbohydrates (sometimes referred to as simple carbohydrates) and complex carbohydrates? We will also look at the glycemic index and see how this can help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugar levels.

I have found that when talking about diet and food with friends and clients, terminology can often be confusing. For example, someone on the keto diet may talk about cutting out carbohydrates, and you may wonder what that means. However, carbohydrates are not just found in grains, breads, and potatoes but also in the vegetables we eat, and we know that they have not cut all those out, too! So, you can see how this can all be confusing!

Carbohydrate is a term used to classify foods whose main building blocks are sugars, not the refined sugar you would put in your tea or coffee but natural sugars found in whole foods. These sugars can also be combined to form fibre and starches. Fibre, such as that found in fruits, vegetables and grains, has an important role in our health. The body cannot digest it; it serves as food for the good bacteria in our gut, but it also helps clean out any toxins or germs found there and helps reduce cholesterol levels. Starchy foods are also a good energy source for the body and include foods such as potatoes, whole wheat bread and brown rice.

What is the difference between refined and complex carbohydrates?

When a carbohydrate, such as a grain, is refined, its outer shell is removed to make it easier for us to digest. Doing so makes the natural sugars more readily available to our body, resulting in a very quick and large release of sugars, creating a boost of energy. That is the main difference between complex and refined carbohydrates such as ‘white’ pasta. With complex carbohydrates, the body must work much harder to break down the various chemical bonds to enable the sugar to be released as energy into the body. As this is a slower process, the release of energy is much steadier; as a result, by eating more complex carbohydrates, we can avoid these energy ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ that people often get when their diet consists mainly of refined carbohydrates.

People who have type 2 diabetes are often suggested to use the glycemic index as a reference point, as this allows them to know which foods will cause a spike in sugar levels and, therefore, should be avoided, as they are trying to keep their blood sugars low, so as not to overload their system with too much sugar. It is based on a scale of 1-100, whereby foods are given a number depending on how quickly they release sugar into the body. The slower the release of sugar from the food ie apples, the lower the number (38) and the quicker the release, the higher the number (72) ie watermelon. It is important to remember that as individuals, we all react slightly differently to food, so what suits one person may not suit another. However, there are times and situations where these middle to higher index foods can and should be eaten, such as during or after a sports event; these foods are a great option to give the person in question a quick boost of energy, remembering though that for someone with type 2 diabetes, these foods are to be avoided.

When we eat carbohydrates, the body converts some into fat for insulation and energy storage. Therefore, long-distance runners or athletes often do what is known as ‘carb loading’ before an important sports event. This is when they will eat large quantities of complex carbohydrates for several days beforehand. This method provides their body with a reserve of energy that will be steadily used up during the event in question, enabling them to compete without lacking energy. However, if an individual continually eats an excess of carbohydrates, whether complex or refined, that excess will only result in weight gain.

ABOVE: Try this delicious roasted cauliflower recipe.

So, are there carbohydrates that we should avoid, or are they all equal? Suppose you eat a balanced diet consisting mainly of natural, whole foods. In that case, there is no real need to worry; however, if your diet consists of refined and processed foods, reducing their consumption by replacing them with whole grain options and more vegetables would be a good start to improving your health. It is not about changing all your habits at once but instead focusing on one or two food items a week and building them up from there. In the meantime, this roasted cauliflower recipe is simple, easy to make and full of healthy carbohydrates. It will get you started on your journey.

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Photos: Peter Lewicki, Olga Kudriavtsevaon, Fabrice Thys, Mariana Medvedeva via Unsplash