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Should we change our relationship with carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates can be part of a healthy diet; the key is learning how to balance the kilojoules you take in with those you burn. This is what you need to know.

We’ve been waging war on carbohydrates for centuries, but carbs are much more than the sugary, starchy scapegoats for weight gain. ‘Types of carbohydrates are sugars, starches, fibres and cellulose found in plant foods, fruit, vegetables and dairy; they provide the body with the energy it needs to function,’ says Denise Caron, a clinical dietitian at Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital. They are part of the three macronutrients found in food: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

The importance of carbohydrates

‘We need carbohydrates for their energy, bran, fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,’ says Denise. ‘They also play a role in digestion, gut health, immunity and protection from cancer.’

The body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, an easy source of fuel to the body. Denise elaborates: ‘Any diet that restricts or cuts a food group or macronutrient may not be sustainable for health, as each food group contains nutrients specific to that group that are essential for health.’

Do carbs make you fat?

‘No, carbohydrates do not make you fat in isolation,’ Denise says emphatically. It’s quite simple, really: we gain weight when we eat more kilojoules than our body needs. According to a Harvard School of Public Health study, people who increased their intake of wholegrains, whole fruits (not fruit juice) and vegetables – which are all carbohydrates – over the course of a 20-year study gained less weight [than those who did not]. 

Quantity and quality

So, we’ve established that carbs are not the enemy. But there are parameters of which to be mindful. ‘Firstly, it is best to eat carbohydrates in their most natural form because then they still contain all their nutrients and fibre,’ Denise explains. White flour is an example of a refined carbohydrate – it’s been stripped of some of its natural goodness.

Sources suggest that carbohydrates can make up 45–65% of your total energy intake. For the average healthy, active person consuming around 8,400kJ per day, this equates to between 225g and 325g carbohydrate intake. Remember, this doesn’t mean you should eat 250g of potatoes or bread! This quantity will come from all the dairy, fruit, vegetables, cereals, breads, starches and sugars you eat that day.

There are three types of carbohydrates:

1. Simple carbohydrates – sugars

  • Sweet, short chains of glucose molecules
  • Examples of carbohydrates in this group include xylitol, cane sugar and honey.

2. Complex carbohydrates – starches

  • Long chains of glucose molecules
  • Examples of carbohydrates in this group include starchy vegetables, grains and legumes.

3. Fibre

Although we can’t digest fibre, it is essential for building healthy bacteria in your gut, it aids digestion and it keeps you feeling fuller for longer.

What is the glycaemic index?

‘I educate on the glycaemic index (GI) of carbohydrates. The GI ranks foods [on a scale of 1–100, with pure glucose being 100] based on their direct and immediate effect on our blood glucose levels. High blood glucose levels can have a harmful effect on our health, which may lead to insulin resistance,’ says Denise.

What the GI values mean:

  • 55 or less = low
  • 56–69 = medium
  • 70 or higher = high 

The GI value of some common carbs:

  • White wheat bread (GI value: ±75)
  • Rolled oats (GI value: ±55)
  • Apple (GI value: ±36)
  • Watermelon (GI value: ±76)
  • Carrots (GI value: ±39)
  • Sweet potato (GI value: ±63)
  • Full-cream milk (GI value: ±39)
  • Chickpeas (GI value: ±30)

Facts about carbohydrates

  • The body converts carbohydrates into glucose, the first form of energy our bodies use.
  • The brain only uses glucose for energy and it is the primary source of fuel for red blood cells, foetuses and exercise.
  • On average, 1g of carbohydrate contains about 17kJ (subject to cooking methods).

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided