Carbohydrates – the good, the bad and the ugly

Fierce controversy rages in the popular press about carbohydrates and their influence on our health.

Thanks to the popularity of the Atkins, South Beach and other low-carbohydrate diets, many believe that all carbohydrates are “bad” and a cause of the obesity epidemic.

Like many issues associated with nutrition, this is a dangerous over-simplification, rather like the “all fat is bad” message.

We now know that carbohydrates, the staple of most diets, are neither all good nor all bad.

Some kinds of carbohydrates promote health whilst others, when eaten often and in large quantities, actually increase the risk for obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and some cancers.

Easily digested carbohydrates from white bread, white rice, white pasta, biscuits, cakes, pastries, sugary drinks and other highly processed foods may indeed contribute to weight gain and interfere with weight loss.

Bad carbohydrates

Bad carbohydrates

Whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables and other sources of intact carbohydrates do just the opposite – they promote good health.

Good carbohydrates

Good carbohydrates

Blanket dismissal of carbohydrates is thus misleading as they are an important part of a healthy diet.

Carbohydrates provide the body with the fuel it needs for physical activity and for proper organ function.

The brain, for example, is totally reliant on carbohydrates to power its activity – 40 per cent of the carbohydrates we consume are used to provide glucose for the brain.

The best sources of carbohydrates – fruits, vegetables and whole grains – also deliver essential vitamins and minerals, fibre and a rich array of protective phytonutrients.

For optimal health, obtain your grains intact from foods such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta, and other possibly unfamiliar grains like quinoa, whole oats, millet, buckwheat and bulgur.

Until recently, you could only buy whole-grain products in organic or non-traditional stores. Today they are available in most mainstream supermarkets. Here are some suggestions for adding more good carbohydrates to your diet:

  • Start the day with whole grains. If you like hot cereals, try porridge made from whole oats, quinoa or brown rice. If you are a cold cereal person, look for muesli or one that lists whole wheat, whole oats, or other whole grain first on the ingredient list. Have fresh or dried fruit with your cereal.
  • Use whole grain breads or crackers for lunch or snacks. Check the label to make sure that whole wheat or another whole grain is the first ingredient listed. Oatcakes with hummus (made from chickpeas) are an excellent ‘good carb’ snack.
  • Reduce intake of potatoes. Instead, try brown rice or even “newer” grains like quinoa, millet, buckwheat or barley with your dinner. There is nothing wrong with potatoes per se – my message is about increasing the variety of starches in your diet, as each grain contains a wide array of nutrients and phytonutrients beneficial for health.
  • Exchange ‘white’ foods for ‘brown’ foods. Brown rice usually needs to be cooked for longer than white rice. If the whole grain products are too chewy for you, look for those that are made with half whole-wheat flour and half white flour.
  • Beans, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables. Beans are an excellent source of slowly digested carbohydrates as well as a great source of protein. Try adding them to casseroles and soups. Aim to eat 5 to 10 portions of vegetables and fruit per day.

For more information about the effect of diet on health, plant-based diets, recipes and tips please sign up for my free newsletter and visit my website.

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