When it comes to nutrition, there are few topics that cause as much confusion as carbs, with many people unsure what the different types are and which ones they should be eating more of. Sweeping statements made in the media like “carbs cause weight gain” or “cut carbs to burn fat” have led to all carbs being demonized, with many food companies cashing in on the resulting low-carb craze. But the truth is, not all carbs are created equal.
Carbs aren’t the enemy
The key thing to understand before we delve into the topic is that – despite what some women’s magazines would have you believe – carbs are not the enemy! Our bodies use carbohydrates in the form of glucose, storing it in our muscles and liver to act as an important source of energy for the body. Our brain relies on it, which explains the brain fog and lethargy that people often complain of when they embark on low-carb diets.
These low-carb diets are a very popular solution for weight loss, but instead of just cutting out carbs, it may be more sensible to simply choose the carbs you eat more wisely. And a simple but effective piece of advice is to focus on the colour of the carbs you eat.
Eat the rainbow
Rather than shunning all carbs, the ones to avoid are the beige ones. Think processed grains, sugary cereals, white pasta and rice, bagels and bread. These are known as “simple” carbs and have been stripped of much of their natural nutrients and fibre.
Instead, fill your plate with colourful carbs like sweet potato, veggies, fruits, pulses and beans. Focusing on these foods will provide a range of health benefits, providing your body with essential vitamins and minerals, as well as dietary fibre and resistant starch to promote a healthy gut and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Unfortunately, though, it’s the beige carbohydrates that are the most popular, forming a large part of many peoples’ diets. One of the key problems with these foods is that they’re often high on the Glycaemic Index – a measure of how quickly the sugar in a food is absorbed into the bloodstream – meaning that eating them sends blood sugar into a rapid spike, which isn’t good news for the waistline or for reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Make healthy swaps
These simple carbs should be eaten in moderation and swapped for healthier “complex” carb alternatives where possible. These have not been processed so heavily and are therefore much closer to their natural state, with a higher fibre and nutrient content. Their chemical structure is different to simple carbs and our bodies have to work harder to digest them. As a result, they have a lower glycaemic index score, with energy released over a longer period of time. Think wholegrain bread (rye or pumpernickel is best) instead of white bread, barley instead of white rice, bran cereals instead of sugary ones, and of course plenty of green veggies and fresh fruits. Try to aim for half of your plate at each meal to be green or brightly coloured.
Oh, and one tip you may not have heard of before when it comes to making healthy carb choices – interestingly, reheating certain carbs can transform the way that they are used by the body. If you reheat cooked pasta or potatoes that have cooled down, or toast frozen white bread from the freezer, the molecules actually reconfigure themselves to become more resistant, which means they behave more like complex carbs. So, making small changes like freezing your bread before you toast it, could actually help to make your diet healthier.
Carbs are one of the three building blocks of our diet, the other two being protein and fat. To learn more about these, check out our blog, Macronutrients and Micronutrients: an introduction