Carbohydrates are compounds that your body needs for energy. When you eat foods that contain carbohydrates, your body converts them into glucose (sugar), which your body uses for fuel.
There are different types of carbohydrate, they aren't all the same.
- Sugar. Sugars are found naturally in some foods, such as fruit, honey and vegetables. Processed sugar is added to foods such as biscuits and soft drinks during their manufacture.
- Starch. Starches are made up of a number – sometimes hundreds – of sugar molecules joined together. They are found in bread, pasta and rice, as well as some fruits and vegetables.
- Fibre is also classed as a carbohydrate. However, unlike other types of carbohydrate, your body doesn't use it for energy; it helps to keep your bowel active and healthy.
Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy. You use them to fuel activity in your muscles and also to keep your brain and other organs working properly.
Say the word ‘carbohydrates’ and many people will immediately think negatively. Carbohydrates have been blamed for feeling tired, bloated and a perceived heaviness. It's also a common misconception that carbohydrates are fattening. Some diet plans, such as the paleo diet (also known as the caveman diet) and the Atkins diet are based on reducing the amount of carbohydrate you eat.
It's not unusual to think of cakes and stodgy food when carbohydrates are mentioned but remember carbohydrates aren't all the same. Low-carb diets often don’t leave room for fruit, vegetables and whole grains, which contain carbohydrates and are essential components of a balanced diet. It's the sugar type of carbohydrate, found in biscuits and fizzy drinks and the like that gives you a sugar rush and is the main problem. Your body processes such sugars very quickly so they don't sustain your energy levels. And we know we should all be eating less of them. See ‘What is the glycaemic index?’ for more information on how quickly carbohydrates are broken down.
Carbohydrates do contain calories but fewer than half the number that are in fat. Of course, as with lots of things, it’s not good to have too much carbohydrate. If you eat more carbohydrate than your body can burn off as energy, the excess will be converted to fat. But carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet.
Rather than eliminate carbohydrates from your diet, the key thing is to eat the right type of carbohydrate because some are healthier than others.
'Good' carbohydrates are the wholegrain varieties of starchy carbohydrates. High-fibre, starchy carbs release sugar into your blood more slowly than sugary foods and drinks. This makes them an important source of energy. See ‘What is the glycaemic index?’ below for information on how quickly different carbohydrates release sugar.
Wholegrains contain a host of important nutrients that may reduce your risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. When grains are processed to make them look whiter, the part of the grain that contains fibre and many useful nutrients is removed. This means that white bread, pasta and cereals aren’t as good for you as the wholegrain varieties.
Wholegrains are also more likely to keep you feeling fuller for longer. This is because they contain more fibre and generally take longer to digest than foods that have been processed.. This can help to control your appetite and help you to maintain a healthy weight.
Sugar is often referred to as a 'bad' carbohydrate. Sugary foods and drinks contribute to your energy intake but have little other value. Not only that, they are often very energy dense, which means they pack a lot of calories into a small volume. Some of these foods also contain a lot of fat but not many other useful nutrients. The calories they contain are often called ‘empty calories’ because of the lack of nutrients. Even if you eat just a small amount of sugary foods and drinks, they can push up your calorie intake remarkably quickly. In fact, sugary drinks are the main reason many of us consume too many empty calories.
It’s best to limit your intake of 'bad' sugar carbohydrates and stick to 'good' starchy foods. But remember to include some fruit in your diet because it has other important nutrients, such as vitamins.
At least half the energy in your diet should come from carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain starchy carbohydrates. So include things like wholemeal bread, brown pasta and rice, as well as some fruits and vegetables. Most of us are already eating enough carbohydrate, but often of the wrong type. Too many calories come from sugary products and not enough from wholegrain, starchy foods.
If you don't eat enough carbohydrate, you may have low blood-sugar levels; this is called hypoglycaemia. This condition will make you feel weak and light-headed. Because your brain needs fuel from carbohydrates, you might also have difficulty concentrating. However, hypoglycaemia mainly affects people who have diabetes, as well as very active sports people.
Aim to make starchy foods about a third of your diet. The easiest way to do this it to try to include wholegrain starchy foods in every meal.
Most people aren’t eating enough starchy foods. Here are some tips on how you can get good carbohydrate into your diet.
- Cut down on refined carbohydrates if you can, swap your white bread, pasta and rice for wholemeal or wholegrain and granary versions. Also, leave the skin on potatoes when you boil them or try some homemade potatoes wedges with the skins left on.
- Variety is the spice of life – try a bagel or tortilla wrap or wholemeal pitta as alternatives to bread. Sweet potatoes and yams make a change from plain old potatoes.
- To get some great sources of starch and fibre in your diet, add beans and lentils to stews, casseroles and curries. You won’t need to use as much meat, so your meal will be lower in saturated fat too.
- Carbohydrate. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, published 2009
- Carbohydrates: good carbs guide the way. Harvard School of Public Health. www.hsph.harvard.edu, accessed 31 July 2012
- Ooi CP, Loke SC, Yassin Z, et al. Carbohydrates for improving the cognitive performance of independent-living older adults with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 4. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007220.pub2
- About carbohydrate. Diabetes UK. www.diabetes.org.uk, published May 2012
- Carbohydrates. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, published 4 October 2011
- Sugars. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 31 July 2012
- Carbohydrates. American Diabetes Association. www.diabetes.org, accessed 31 July 2012
- Masters B, Aarabi S, Sidhwa F, et al. High-carbohydrate, high-protein, low-fat versus low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat enteral feeds for burns. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 1. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006122.pub3
- Starchy foods. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 31 July 2012
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