Carbohydrates – are they good or bad for us?

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy used in the body, with the average consumption being between 40 to 80% in most people’s diets [1]. They are the sugars, starches and fibres found in products such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. Some examples of starchy carbohydrates are potatoes, rice, lentils, and bread. Sugars can be either natural or refined. Natural sugars are normally found in whole foods, such as strawberries, milk, and sweetcorn. Refined sugars are created when natural sugars are extracted from foods, like sugar cane or sugar beets, and are usually added to processed foods, such as fizzy drinks and chocolate bars. Fibre is an indigestible carbohydrate but is beneficial in our diet, some good sources of dietary fibre would be chickpeas, whole wheat pasta and vegetables. There are a lot of myths surrounding carbohydrates and they are often miscategorised as being “bad” for us but they play an important role in our bodies.

Why are carbohydrates important?

Carbohydrates provide fuel for our muscles, organs, and nervous system. They are broken down into sugar by the body meaning that their consumption regulates our blood sugar levels. Sugars are ideal for when we need energy quickly as they are already broken down into a usable form for the body. Starches are known as complex carbohydrates as they need to be broken down before they can be used for energy. This is useful as it means that energy is released more slowly over a longer period of time, giving us more prolonged energy. Fibre is also important to the body as it promotes good digestive health and helps to keep you feeling full after a meal.

How should carbohydrates be incorporated into our diets?

The NHS Eatwell Guide [2] suggests that about a third of the food that we eat should consist of starchy carbohydrates. Additionally, they recommend that we should aim to choose starchy carbohydrates which are also high in fibre. Foods containing refined sugar should be eaten in small amount and less often as they are not a necessity in our diets but can be implemented as part of a balanced diet. Fruit and vegetables, containing natural sugars, should also make up around a third of our total food intake, with the aim of eating 5 portions of different fruit and vegetables to reach our 5-a-day. To incorporate carbohydrates into your meals, you should aim to fill a third of your plate with starchy carbohydrates and another third with fruit and vegetables, at each meal.

Top Tips for Carbohydrates

  1. Switch starchy carbohydrates, such as white rice and pasta, for wholegrain alternatives, like brown rice and wholewheat pasta, for a boost of fibre.
  2. Try splitting your plate at each meal into sections to ensure you are having the recommended proportions of each food type.
  3. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables which are rich in fibre and natural sugars.
  4. Try to limit the amount of added, refined sugars in your diet.
  5. Eat wholegrain, starchy carbohydrates for breakfast for slow-releasing energy that will sustain you until lunchtime.

Carbohydrates seem to have a bad reputation, but they are an essential part of our diets. By implementing carbohydrates as part of a balanced diet and by following the tips above, carbohydrates can and should be enjoyed by all.

Article written by Libby Grimshaw (Nutrition Intern) and reviewed by Caroline Hill Freelance Dietitian

[1] Nantel, G. (1999). Carbohydrates in human nutrition. Food Nutrition and Agriculture, 6-10.[2] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/?tabname=food-and-diet

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