With eating plans like the ketogenic diet gaining traction carbohydrates are often depicted as the demon of the food world. But does this macronutrient deserve the role of the villain? To answer this question we should consider what a carbohydrate actually is and what foods they appear in.
Very simply, a carbohydrate is a class of nutrients that are made up of one or more sugar molecules. Carbohydrates can be categorized as either sugars or starches. Sugars are called simple carbohydrates because they require minimal digestive processing before being absorbed into the blood. Sugary foods and beverages of all kinds are examples of simple carbohydrates, regardless of the type of sugar used in them (i.e. sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup etc.). Fruits and milk/yogurts also contain simple carbohydrates in the form of fructose and lactose respectively. Starches are considered complex carbohydrates because they must be broken down into their individual sugar molecules prior to absorption. Complex carbohydrates are not necessarily sweet to the taste and include food items like grains, legumes, peas, and potatoes. Carbohydrates, regardless of their source, are turned into sugars by the body.
It is a well-established truth that sugars contribute to an array of health issues; therefore it is probably at least in part due to their indistinguishable relationship with sugar that carbohydrates have gained their infamy. However, while too much sugar consumption is far from healthy, sugar (in the form of the sugar molecule, glucose) is also a primary fuel source for the body. In fact, glucose is the only fuel that the brain uses during normal physiological circumstances. These contradictory carbohydrate stories, wherein carbohydrates are both harmful and essential make it challenging for the general public to understand the truth about carbs.
When providing carbohydrate recommendations there are two factors that should be considered: quality and quantity. It is unnecessary (and potentially harmful) to instruct people to avoid carbohydrates all together. Instead, it should be suggested to include quality carbohydrates that are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and dietary fiber. It is often suggest that simple carbohydrates should be avoided and complex carbohydrates may be included. However, if we consider food items in each of these categories, even this recommendation is not necessarily the best approach. For example, fruits are an example of a healthy simple carbohydrate while white bread is an example of an unhealthy starch. Better sources of carbohydrate can be found alongside food components that will slow their digestion, allowing for gradual and sustained blood sugar and energy. Fat and fiber are each highly effective in slowing digestion and preventing unwanted blood sugar spikes. You can eat quality carbohydrates guilt free in their minimally processed or unprocessed forms. Fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains (wild/brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, oatmeal), and legumes are examples of carbohydrates that are rich in nutrients and fibers and should be included most often. Check out my post on Grains to get the full scoop on this infamous food group. Plain dairy is also abundant in micronutrients, protein, and fat and can be included in a healthy eating pattern if desired. Remember that the second recommendation when it comes to carbohydrate intake is quantity. Even when we are selecting the highest quality of carbohydrates they should not make up the entirety of the diet. Instead, healthy carbohydrates should be paired with foods like non-starchy vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. If you’d like more info on the amount of carbohydrate that is right for YOU, please reach out for a personalized nutrition counseling session.