What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for your body. Fats and protein also provide energy, but carbohydrates are the preferred type of energy source for your brain and nervous system. Your body also uses carbohydrates to fuel activity in your muscles and keep other organs working properly.
Even when your body breaks down fat for energy, you still need a certain amount of carbohydrate for this process to happen properly.
Wholegrain, starchy carbohydrates are also an important source of other essential nutrients, including fibre.
What types of carbohydrates are there?
Carbohydrates in their natural form that haven't been processed can be thought of as ‘good carbs’ because they tend to be healthier. These include:
- natural sugars found in whole fruit and vegetables, milk, and dairy products
- wholegrain, high-fibre varieties of starchy carbohydrates
Sources of wholegrain and high-fibre carbs include:
- wholegrain bread
- brown rice
- whole-wheat cereals
- potatoes with the skin left on
These carbs provide a steady source of energy. They release sugar into your blood more slowly than sugary foods and drinks, or refined carbs like white bread. This can keep you feeling fuller for longer, helping to control your appetite and maintain a healthy weight.
The ‘free’ sugars added to processed foods and drinks – like biscuits, fizzy drinks, chocolate, and cake – can be thought of as ‘bad carbs’. These foods and drinks contribute to your energy intake by packing a lot of calories into a small volume, but often lack other useful nutrients. Free sugars are also naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices so it can be confusing to understand what’s good and bad. What’s important is to be aware of these free sugars and try to reduce your sugar intake when you can.
Processed or refined starchy carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta and, cereals are less healthy than wholegrain options. This is because when grains are processed to look whiter, the part of the grain that contains fibre and many useful nutrients is removed.
How many carbohydrates do I need?
Aim to make starchy foods – ideally wholegrain starchy carbohydrates – about a third of your diet. Include things like wholemeal bread, brown pasta, or brown rice in every meal, as well as some fruits and vegetables. In general, a portion of carbohydrate for one meal should be about the size of your fist. The exact amount you need differs from person to person. It depends on many things, including your age and activity levels. As a minimum, adults should have 130g of carbohydrates.
Do all bodies react the same to carbohydrates?
The way carbohydrates affect your body can depend on if you have certain conditions. If you have diabetes, carbohydrate counting becomes very important. A registered dietitian can help you with this. While you have to watch your intake of sugary foods, this doesn’t mean you have to completely cut out carbohydrates. There are healthier sources of carbohydrates you can include in your diet such as fruit, vegetables, and wholegrains. These are foods with a low glycaemic index (GI). GI is a measure of how quickly carbohydrate in your food is digested and broken down into sugar molecules. Low-GI foods cause your blood sugar level to rise and fall slowly, so you feel fuller for longer.