Chances are you’ve probably already heard all about low-carb diets – the latest popular trend for people who want to lose weight fast.
These diets basically work by replacing foods that are high in digestible carbohydrates with foods that are high in protein, certain fats and low in carbohydrates.
So just why do carbs play such an important role when it comes to weight gain and weight loss? And what exactly is a carbohydrate anyway?
Well, carbohydrates are organic compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that are formed by plants and found in all kinds of foods. In fact, in its different guises, carbohydrates make up an entire class of food.
There are four types of carbohydrates that are essential to nutrition, sugars (simple sugars), starches, fibers and gums (complex carbohydrates).
Carbohydrates are necessary for both the structure of living cells as well as the ability for animals (including ourselves) to store energy; making carbohydrates, along with fat and protein, our bodies main source of fuel.
Are there good and bad carbs?
The thing about carbohydrates is that they can be both good and bad for you, and there is a big difference between the various types of carbohydrates that we eat when it comes to nutrition and health benefits.
For example, carbs that are rich in fiber can prevent sudden rises in blood sugar level as they are absorbed more slowly into your system. These carbs are found in fiber rich foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruit and beans. Unfortunately, these beneficial fibers are often stripped away from processed carbohydrates, like in white bread and white rice.
Carbs also help regulate the amounts of sugar in your blood, provide nutrients for the friendly bacteria in your intestinal tract that help digest food and assist in your body’s absorption of calcium. Certain dietary fibers are also believed to help lower cholesterol and regulate blood pressure.
Your cells however will only retain as much energy from the carbs you eat as they need. This means that if you’re eating too many carbs, the excess energy in the form of sugar is stored as fat in your body (think of it as your body saving emergency stores of energy), which is why so many people believe that simply cutting out foods that are high in carbs from their diet, or cutting out all carbs entirely, is the way to go in shedding kilos.
While there are certainly carbs that are more beneficial to your health than others, there really is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ carbs, but rather good and bad ‘amounts’ of carbs.
Listing carbs as good or bad however simplifies things when it comes to identifying what types of foods we should be eating more of, and what kinds we shouldn’t eat too much of.
So, the ‘bad’ carbs are the ones known as ‘simple carbs’, which are broken down into sugar really quickly. These are the carbs that will give you more energy than your body needs at that time (causing it to store away as fat).
Good carbs (simple carbs) are those that are high in fiber and release energy into the body slowly so the energy is used up as it’s released.
So what kind of diet should I go for?
While they may be the fad, diets that stringently restrict all or significant carbohydrates intake are not recommended.
Instead, the wise choice in adjusting your diet to either lose weight or simply become healthier is to watch your overall calorie intake, while at the same time choosing to eat healthy carbohydrate sources like whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Staying clear of high-calorie, sugar sweetened foods and watching your intake of food with high levels of processed carbohydrates (see chart) will improve not only your diet, but your health too.
Good (Complex Carbs)
Whole grains and foods made from whole grains, such as bread and cereal
Bad (Simple Carbs)
Refined grains like white bread and white rice
Processed foods such as cake, cookies and chips