Jamie Lee, dietitian in training
Recent fad diets have suggested that we need to drastically reduce or eliminate carbs from our plates and lives. However, carbohydrates are needed by our body to carry out normal functions and are, in fact, the body’s main and preferred source of fuel upon conversion to glucose .
The decision we make about carbs shouldn’t be to avoid them or not, but more so which types of carbs to eat and in what portion!
Not all carbs are created equal
Carbs can be categorized into starch, fiber and sugars. Starch and fiber are known as complex carbs while sugars are simple carbs . When whole grains are processed into white flour, or white rice, they get stripped of their complex carbs and nutritional value, and become a "refined carb". As a we'll see, it's important to eat the right kinds of carbs while limiting our intake of others.
What are good carbs?
Complex carbs, starches and fibers, are unrefined carbs that get broken down more slowly by the digestive system, and as a consequence, enter your bloodstream in a slow, sustained manner. As a consequence, they provide us with energy more consistently and unlike simple carbs, won’t cause a huge spike in blood sugar or cause a sugar crash .
In addition to helping regulate your energy levels, fiber helps maintain good digestive health and helps us feel full for longer.
What foods have good carbs?
Starch and fiber can be found in foods such as legumes (beans and lentils), root vegetables (potatoes, beets), fruits, whole grains (oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice) and whole grain products (bread, pasta). You can and should be eating these food on a daily basis, as they help support good health.
What carbs should you avoid?
We often hear that “white carbs” like white bread, white rice and white pasta should be avoided. Is that true?
White carbs, or refined carbs, come from grains that are stripped of their nutrient-dense parts (bran and germ). This leaves just the endosperm, which has considerably less fiber and essential nutrients .
These refined carbs get broken down into glucose very quickly and can lead to uncontrolled spikes in blood glucose . This is what causes the infamous sugar rush and sugar crash. As a general rule, it's best to avoid refined carbs, and choosing the whole grain alternative will not only help regulate your energy but also be more rich in nutrients.
What about simple carbs?
Similar to refined carbs, simple carbs (sugars) quickly enter the bloodstream and can also lead to spikes in blood sugar levels . Although it may seem like simple carbs should be avoided altogether, the source of the simple carb matters. When the sugar is added, such as in candy, baked goods and soda, it's best to limit our intake. Sweets and items with added sugars don’t provide many nutrients other than energy (calories) and if taken in excess, can lead to weight gain and a host of chronic diseases .
However, when the sugars are naturally present, such as in fruit and dairy products, it's fine to consume, within reason, since these foods have a plethora of other good-for-you nutrients . Still, how much you eat does matter.
How Much Carbs Should I be Eating?
One simple trick to remember is to keep your carbohydrate portion for a meal to about the size of your closed fist.
Here are some examples of healthy carbs in reasonable portions:
Are desserts unhealthy?
You would benefit from cutting out sugary treats from your diet, but where's the fun in that? Sweets are an important part of traditions and celebrations, and it's not realistic for more of us to cut them out completely. When it comes to desserts and sugary treats, the key is moderation. Experiment with alternatives that have less sugar and be mindful of your portion size. If dark choco overnight oats can satisfy your mid-day chocolate craving, you'll be rewarded in the long-term for making a low-sugar, nutrient dense choice!
To summarize, carbs play an important part in a healthy diet, providing us with energy, fiber and many important nurtients. The key is not avoidance, but choosing the right kinds. Choose complex carbs over refined carbs and foods with naturally occurring sugar over those with added sugar. Eat them in reasonable (~ first-sized) amounts and you’re good to go!