Carbohydrates (CHOs) are a hot topic at the moment. Should you include them in your diet, should you not? When to eat them and when not to? And which CHOs are the best? It's all very confusing, even I'm starting to second guess myself. So let's keep it simple, shall we?
At the start of your health journey, particularly if your goal is weight loss, which type of CHOs is not particularly as important as gaining control of them, limiting processed CHOs and replacing them with fresh sources such as fruits and vegetables.
However, as you either lose weight or move towards fitness or muscle building goals, which type of CHOs you choose may play an important role in how quickly you achieve your goals. So let's break them down into three distinct groups.
- Sugars. Simple sugars are sweet, soluble carbohydrates made up of short chains of molecules such as glucose, fructose and galactose. Losing weight? These CHOs are the ones you're looking to limit or avoid altogether
- Starch. These CHOs are made up of long-chain glucose molecules, which are broken down in the digestive system and absorbed into the bloodstream. Glucose is the energy currency of the body, utilised by the body in many ways including brain function and muscle use and development
- Fibre. Indigestible to humans. However, fibre can be used by the bacteria in your digestive system to promote a healthy digestive system
The role of carbohydrates in the body
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and used within the body as energy. However, the common belief is that only CHOs are necessary for energy production. This is not true. While CHOs are the preferred energy source for the body, as they are broken down easily and utilised, the body can also create energy from Fat and Protein.
Now, here is the tricky part. Let's say your goal is weight loss. The easiest way to move your body towards using stored fat as a fuel source is to remove CHOs altogether from your diet, right?
While this may be beneficial for your weight loss goal in the short term, you have to consider the effects restricted CHO intake may have on your energy for exercise, normal bodily functions and activities of daily living. Further, muscles require some glucose to work and maintain strength and mass. As your lean muscle mass increases, so does your basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy expended while at rest) therefore increasing your chance of weight loss. And we don't want to hinder that!
For those training to increase muscle mass and size, or those looking to improve fitness aspects such as running, CHOs play a vital role in quickly replenishing your energy sources as a result of high activity requirements. Carbohydrates are your go-to source for fuel. Limiting CHOs for these types of goals reduce performance, increase the likelihood of fatigue and prevent muscle development and growth.
Whole vs. refined
Whole CHOs are often referred to as complex CHOs and are sourced from natural, plant-based sources and are identified as slow-digesting CHOs which have not had their fibre removed. In addition, they are packed with micronutrients. Examples include:
- Nuts and seeds (but contain greater quantities of Protein and Fat)
Refined CHOs are also derived from plant-based sources, but are highly processed and may contain added sugars. Because they are stripped of their natural fibre, they are easily digested, requiring less energy to break down and therefore increase the chance of being converted to fat when combined with a sedentary lifestyle. Examples include:
- Foods and beverages with added sugar
As general consensus, refined CHOs should be avoided/reduced and whole/complex CHOs increased to not only improve the chance of weight loss, but improve overall health. Our digestive systems are not designed to cope with high intake of refined sugars. Reports say that the average western diet may comprise of 50% refined CHOs. Contributing to the high prevalence of overweight or obese adults in Australia (almost 65% of the population!)
Refined CHOs are:
- Calorically rich but nutritionally poor
- Contain no useful fibre
- Rapidly digested, spiking blood sugar and insulin response which may increase the chance of being converted to Fat
- They increase risk of metabolic problems and diabetes, in association with a sedentary lifestyle
- Activate reward pathways in the brain, increasing the chance of consuming more calories than you would eating CHOs in an unrefined form
Including some CHOs into your diet may promote:
- Improved athletic performance
- Boosting mood
- Improved sleep
- Reduction in inflammation
- Improved digestion
Best sources of complex CHOs include:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Colourful Vegetables:
- Purple cabbage
- Beans and lentils
- Whole fruits
- Brown rice