In recent years carbohydrates have been typecast as the villain in our quest to eat healthy and lose weight. Diets such as Keto and Paleo recommend steering clear of carbs and social media influencers promote low-carb diets by posting drool-worthy photos of bacon wrapped everything.
It can be difficult to remember that what you see online isn’t necessarily the truth. Carbohydrates aren’t the enemy. In fact, your body needs carbs in order to survive. The following article will help you understand the important role carbs play in your health.
Healthy vs Empty Carbs
First off, not all carbs are created equal. There are healthy carbs and there are empty carbs. Your body needs carbohydrate rich foods in order to function but you need to eat the right type of carbs.
When you think of carb-rich foods you probably envision crackers, pasta and fluffy bread. While these are carbohydrates, there’s a bigger picture that you may be missing. Vegetables, beans and peas are all carbs too. They’re what’s known as complex carbohydrates. (1)
The sugars in complex carbs are strung together in long chains. They occur naturally in foods such as whole grains and they’re not made in a lab. Refined carbohydrates are found in processed foods such as crackers, chips, white bread, pastries and packaged baked goods. These refined carbs are known as empty carbs because they don’t provide your body with the fibre, vitamins and minerals that complex carbs do.
Another difference between complex and empty carbs is the length of time that they provide fuel for your body. Empty carbs are like kindling on a fire; they light quickly and burn out even faster. Complex carbs stick around for a little while because they take your body longer to process so they’re more like the slow-burning log that you toss on your fire. (2)
- Whole grains such as millet, quinoa, barley, spelt, whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta and brown rice
- Legumes such as chickpeas, black beans, lentils and green peas
- Old-fashioned (or rolled) oats
- Vegetables such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, leafy greens and broccoli
Related: Easy Black Beans
How does the body use carbohydrates?
No matter which type of carbohydrate you’re eating, the basic process remains the same. Your body works to break down the carbs into simple sugars. These sugars are then absorbed into your bloodstream in the form of glucose (blood sugar). Your body then produces a substance known as insulin in your pancreas. The job of insulin is to move glucose around your body to the areas that need it.
When you eat empty carbs, this process happens very quickly and your blood glucose levels spike. Unfortunately, the energy from the carbs is rapidly burned through and your blood sugar levels drop leaving you feeling drained and hungry.
Complex carbohydrates take longer for your body to digest and turn into glucose. This means that they raise your blood sugar levels much slower than empty carbs do and you don’t feel the dramatic sugar highs and energy crashes you get with empty carbs. They provide a more stable and steadier source of energy for your body. (5)
What’s a proper serving of carbohydrates?
Everyone’s carbohydrate needs vary based on their age, gender and level of physical activity. Because of this The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine recommends that roughly 45%-65% of your calories come from carbohydrates. This is a large range but it clearly shows that roughly half of your calories should come from carbs. (6)
When looking at a single serving of carbs it’s easier to look at the make-up of your overall meal as opposed to the number of grams of carbohydrates you’re eating. A quick check of your plate can let you know if you’re on track. If half of your plate is full of complex carbs like whole grains and vegetables then you’re doing great.
To speak to a nutritionist about your individual carbohydrate needs click here!
Children need more carbohydrates than adults
It’s especially important for children to have a diet that’s rich in healthy carbs. Because children are still growing, they need fuel for their developing muscles and their active brains. Glucose is necessary for muscle and brain function. Children should never be on a low-carb diet unless you’ve been specifically recommended to do so by your child’s medical professional. (7)
Instead of eliminating or reducing your child’s overall carb intake you can take a look at the type of carbs they’re eating. Is their diet full of empty carbs and simple sugars? Then you might consider making some healthier swaps. Sub out brown rice in place of white rice. Offer them whole grain crackers and veggies as a snack instead of packaged fruit products. Change out their juice boxes for real fruit.
These are all healthy substitutions that you can make to change the type of carbohydrates that your child is getting. Remember that your child is growing and their growing bodies have different needs than yours do. Always speak with your child’s pediatrician or another medical professional before making any major changes to their diets.
Carbs are not the enemy. They play a vital role in the health of your body by supplying your cells, tissue, muscle and brain with the fuel you need. As long as you make sure your diet is rich in complex carbs and you steer clear of empty carbohydrates, you’ll have the energy you need to live a healthy, happy life.
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Kaitlyn Bain is a professional health and wellness writer with a passion for helping her clients educate their readers on healthy lifestyles.