There are lots of mixed messages surrounding carbohydrates, and this basics guide provides some insight to help separate the fact from the fiction.
Why do we need to eat carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates ultimately break down to form molecules called glucose and the human body is dependent on these to provide fuel. Have you ever noticed how when you get over-hungry you are not only lacking in physical energy, but your focus and concentration goes? This is when your body is telling you that it needs more fuel.
Carbohydrates not only provide you with essential fuel, but they are also responsible for;
Storing glucose as glycogen – this enables you to maintain a constant blood glucose level. When glycogen stores are full, it will either be stored as fat or is broken down to create new energy stores. So for example, if you eat a meal, a portion of this will provide you with immediate energy and a portion of this will be stored as glycogen for ongoing energy provision. If you are consuming more than you are burning, then the rest will be stored as excess. And this is how we gain weight.
Hormone regulation – insulin and glucagon regulate blood glucose levels. Insulin is responsible for moving glucose from the blood into cells and glucagon is the hormone that releases stored glycogen when it’s required.
If your body doesn’t have enough glucose from carbohydrate sources, it will turn to your protein and fat stores instead. That might sound like a good idea, but protein and fat both have their own jobs to do (read more here.. protein, fats).
What is the daily recommended requirement for carbohydrates?
It is recommended that daily intake of carbohydrates makes up 45-65% of your daily kilojoule/calorie intake.
Will carbohydrates make me gain weight?
The answer to this is yes and no. It all depends on the type of carbohydrates you are consuming. If your output of energy is less than your input of food, then you are likely to gain weight. It is also worth considering if your job is sedentary or active and how much physical exercise you do.
What are considered to be ‘bad’ carbs and what are ‘good’ carbs?
Bad carbohydrates are those that offer little nutritional benefit when consumed. These are foods that provide energy, but offer very little in the way of vitamins, minerals and fibre. This includes foods such as cakes, sweets/lollies, crisps, fried food, processed foods, fast foods.
What if you can’t resist all the bad stuff? It’s ok not to eat whole foods 100% of the time, but it’s really important to be mindful and aware of eating a balanced diet. For example, if you going to eat highly processed foods for your dinner, consider what you are going to eat for breakfast and lunch and make sure you are getting sufficient fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Good carbohydrates are of course the opposite to the bad ones and offer nutritional benefit through vitamins, minerals, fibre and water. These foods include whole grains, vegetables, fruit, rice, legumes and bran.
What is the difference between refined sugar and unrefined sugar?
Refined sugar is processed and similarly to good and bad carbohydrates,this means a loss of any nutritional benefit (vitamins and minerals). Refined sugars are classified as granulated sugars, ie. the type of sugar you might put in your tea or on your Weetbix. A can of coke is the perfect example of how processed foods/drinks are full of refined sugars. One can contains 39g of sugar, that’s the equivalent to just over 9 teaspoons of sugar. How often would you put 9 teaspoons of sugar on your breakfast?
Unrefined sugars are those that still retain their nutrients, vitamins and minerals. These include honey, rice malt syrup, coconut syrup, agave and maple syrup. These types of sugars will offer more nutritional benefits. It’s important to remember that sugar is still sugar and when consumed in excess, it can lead to an increased risk of disease.
Is it true you shouldn’t eat carbs after 6pm?
This really depends on the type and the amount of carbohydrates you are consuming and links back to your food input versus your energy output. Evidence shows that smaller and lower calorie meals in the evening help manage weight, whereas consuming large calorific meals in the evening can lead to an increase in weight.
There is also evidence to suggest that the later you eat in the evening, the more calories you will consume throughout the day. This is when compared to eating your meal earlier in the evening.
What is the lowest carbohydrate alcohol?
Spirits are completely free of carbohydrates. What you need to be aware of is the mixers you use and the sugar contained within them. A perfect option is to drink vodka and soda mixed with fresh lime.
Have you got a question that hasn’t been covered? You are more than welcome to contact me and I’ll see if it’s something that can feature in the series.
de Castro, JM 2004, ‘The time of date food intake influences overall intake in humans’, The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 134, no. 1, pp. 104-111, www.ncbi.nlm.gov.
Kinsey, AW & Ormsbee, MJ 2015, ‘The Health Impact of Nighttime Eating: Old and New Perspectives’, Nutrients, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 2648-2662, www.ncbi.nlm.gov.
Whitney, E, Rolfes, SR, Crowe, T, Cameron-Smith, D & Walsh, A 2014, ‘Understanding Nutrition: Australia and New Zealand Edition’, 2nd edn, Cengage Learning Australia, South Melbourne.