“The brain's preferred source of fuel is glucose/carbohydrates. And when you go on a low-carb/high-protein diet, your brain is using low-octane fuel. You'll be a little groggy, a little grumpy.”

                                                                                                                                                                                Jack Lalanne

When we think of carbohydrates, we think of pasta, bread, rice and potatoes; stodgy, heart-warming meals such as lasagne, pie and mash, or pizza. However, on a basic level carbohydrates are simply sugar and starch. We crave carbs, cut out carbs, eat carbs before exercising and even steal carbs from other people’s plates.

Modern diets warn us against eating too many carbohydrates and even advise cutting them out altogether. We are all familiar with the diets, especially featured in women’s magazines that promote low carb intake to slim down for that summer body but they never tell us the long-term effects of fad dieting.

The focus on carbohydrates and losing weight should be forgotten; the body needs a variety of nutrients to function at its best. Avoiding one of the main nutrients the body needs is not a good idea when it comes to our general health.

So, what actually are carbohydrates and why do we have such a love-hate relationship with them?

Chemically speaking, a carbohydrate is a biomolecule and consists of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It comes in two main forms: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are mainly sugars such as glucose, fructose, sucrose, and lactose, whereas complex carbohydrates are starch-based, which means they have sugar molecules strung together.

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What are the best carbs?
Pasta is typical starchy carbohydrate. (Source: Eaters Collective on Unsplash)

Carbohydrates have four main functions in the body:

  1. To provide the body with energy;
  2. To store energy in the body;
  3. To build what are called macromolecules (part of cell function);
  4. Make sure protein and fat are spared for other important uses.

In knowing this, it is now strange to think that cutting carbohydrates will make our bodies healthier.

Find about the five food groups.

Carbohydrates in Food

Carbohydrates come in many forms. As highlighted earlier, our association with carbs is both pleasure and pain.

Yes, we love to eat bread, pasta, potatoes, and rice and we often feel guilty for indulging in these types of foods but there are many variations of carbohydrates; it is just about learning to pick the right ones.

So what carbohydrates should we be eating?

As mentioned earlier, there are two main variations of carbohydrate: Unrefined (complex) and refined (simple).

After eating complex or unrefined carbs, energy is released slowly, which means we are less likely to snack or crash throughout the day. Whereas we eat simple or refined carbohydrates, generally high processed food, we are much more likely to feel hungry quicker and be prone to cravings and binging.

These highly processed foods have less vitamin and mineral content, especially fibre and B vitamins, and include foods such as white bread, pasta, rice and breakfast cereals as well as various snacks, sweets and carbonated drinks.

These are the types of food that should be eaten sparingly. If these foods are consumed regularly or as the basis of our diets, our bodies can start experiencing problems such as digestive issues and weight gain, which in turn can lead to obesity and heart disease.

Eating too many refined carbs can also play havoc with our teeth and hormones leading to acne and other skin conditions. If in doubt, simply stay away from beige foods. Generally, the more colourful your plate, the more nutrients it contains.

Complex or unrefined carbohydrates are found in more natural, fresh foods including whole grains, beans and pulses, fruits, and vegetables. These sources of carbohydrates are much healthier for us so it is important to consider opting for wholegrain pasta, rice and bread and plenty of fruit and vegetables when shopping.

This is not to say we can’t enjoy our favourite pasta or pizza at the best Italian restaurant in town or enjoy a visit to the local chippy every now and then. It about having the right knowledge and making better decisions day to day.

What are unhealthy carbs?
Although not a healthy carb choice, it's okay to have chips every now and then. (Source: Gilly on Unsplash)

The Risks of a Low Carb Diet

To put it simply, carbohydrates are the body’s number one source of energy, without them, our bodies have less energy and rely on protein and fat, diminishing the important role these food groups play.

Reducing our intake of refined carbohydrates is necessary to maintain optimal health but on the other side, cutting out carbs altogether can have a very negative impact on our bodies in the short term and even more so in the long term.

If the body does not have enough sugar, it starts to break down our stored fat. This might sound like a good thing if we are trying to lose weight but this also causes, what are known as ketones to build up in our bodies. Ketones are produced by the liver during times of low food intake. This is a way of the body protecting itself or what is often referred to as ’survival mode’. The body is an amazing instrument!

In the short term, ketosis, which is a normal metabolic process, becomes dangerous when there is a build of ketones, causing many negative side effects such as headaches, nausea, tiredness and even bad breath.

Cut out carbs for a long period and replace them with high protein foods such as meat and dairy is a potential danger zone. These seemingly ‘healthy’ alternatives to carbs mean the body’s consumption of saturated fat is much higher, which in turn, increases the amount of cholesterol in the blood. High cholesterol is the number one cause of heart disease and stroke. Not something to take lightly.

Yet the long-term effects often seem so far from our minds, we tend to ignore the advice when it comes to nutrition, especially when we are pressured to look a certain way. Carbohydrates, like fat, are not the enemy and the more we understand this food group, the healthier we will be.

Healthy Carbohydrate recipe ideas

There are plenty of recipes out there to help us create the perfect balance of carbohydrates for every meal. It is not always convenient or affordable for everyone to make big changes to their weekly shop but we can make small changes that will go a long way.

For example, consider baking your own pizza dough with wholegrain flour or energising that salad with lentils or beans. Or, why not opt for sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes and create colourful, varied meals using it as the base: chop them into fries, oven bake them and add spices for a delicious side dish one day, or bake them whole with your favourite topping the next. There are so many ways to cook starchy vegetables.

Be inspired by authentic Indian cuisine and add wholegrain rice and quinoa to a Biryani dish. Use whole grain pasta in that famous veggie Spag Bowl the whole family loves. Be daring and fish out that blender hidden in the back of the cupboard to make the perfect red pepper and lentil soup with fresh wholegrain bread for those cold winter days.

Is bread a good source of carbohydrates?
Team that homemade soup with some crusty, wholegrain bread. (Source: Wesual Click on Unsplash)

Carbohydrates are such a staple in our diets that it is liberating to understand which ones benefit us most and break the low carb habit and, instead, add complex carbs/good carbs to our everyday diet.

If we focus on the types of foods that give us the most joy and go online to research inspired recipes and ideas, we soon realise that unhealthy cooking does not always need to be at the heart of our daily lives.

Carbohydrates do not have to be the food we feel guilty about eating or binge on after avoiding them for weeks. We can integrate them into our everyday diets and feel healthy and full of energy because they are naturally high fibre foods that maintain our blood sugar levels.

Healthy living does not mean we have to be boring and bland in the kitchen. Cooking and eating should be a joy, and research suggests that if we enjoy our food, our overall digestion also improves. So finding that balance between taste and health is crucial. Healthy, unrefined carbs can just be the base, you can decide on the flavour.

Read more about proteins.

Read more about fats.

Read more about fruit and vegetables.

Read more about dairy.

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