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The low down on carbohydrates

For some 20 years now carbohydrates have been a controversial conversation, particularly among those who are on a weight-loss mission.

Some experts claim carbohydrates cause obesity and type two diabetes.

While others agree, you can have your carbohydrates and eat them too, just make sure it’s for breakfast –unless you going for a run early in the morning – then you can eat them later in the day. 

There are good arguments on both sides, and it appears that carbohydrate requirements depend largely on the individual.

If you know how carbohydrates work and affect our bodies, and why we need them, you can have a much healthier attitude towards them and not buy into a faddy no-carb diet.


What are carbohydrates?

It’s important to recognise that not all carbohydrates are equal.

Carbohydrates are sugars, starches or dietary fibre, so it’s the type and how we consume them that has the most impact.

Let’s break this down, foods that are rich in carbohydrates fall into four main categories:

  • Simple sugars – white and brown sugar, honey, maple syrup
  • White complex carbohydrates – bread, pasta, rice, flour, cereal
  • Wholemeal and whole-wheat complex carbohydrates – bread, pasta, rice, flour, cereal
  • Vegetables and fruit – root vegetables in particular, such as potatoes, carrots, kumara, turnips, parsnips


What carbohydrates should we eat?

Simple carbohydrates, such as white refined sugar or sugary processed foods and drinks, are digested quickly and are empty calories, giving us a blood sugar spike followed by an energy low that can leave us feeling sluggish.

Eating more complex carbohydrates is key – they take longer to break down, are slow-releasing and give us a more sustained level of energy.

Even better, choose wholemeal and whole-wheat varieties, as these also contain more fibre and other nutrients that our bodies can use and take even longer to digest, helping us to feel full for longer.

While vegetables and fruit are often rich in carbohydrates too, they have such high nutrient values so they go into the vegetable and fruit tally instead.


Why do carbohydrates have a bad reputation?

When people criticise carbohydrates, it’s generally our sweet tooth that’s the problem.

It’s a huge sweeping statement to say that carbohydrates make us fat.

Obviously, like anything, if we consume more than we need the excess is going to be stored as fat in the body, but if we eat the right type of carbohydrates we should all be in a happy place.


 Why do we need carbohydrates?

If we don’t get enough carbohydrates and our bodies don’t get the energy needed they have to get it from elsewhere by breaking down fat and protein. 

Protein is essential to the growth and repair of our bodies, so using it up for energy is inefficient and could eventually lead to muscle wastage.

Eating complex carbohydrates is the best way to maintain our blood sugar levels, which helps us to concentrate and carry out our daily chores.

So forget the fear of carbohydrates and include them in your diet in the right way, every day.


How much can we eat?

Because complex carbohydrates come in many wonderful different shapes and forms it can be easy to double up and have too much without realising, so portion control and restraint is the name of the game.

Carbohydrates should be about one-third of your balanced plate, and ultimately it’s what you pair those with that’ll get you on or off the right track.


Fantastic fibre

Fibre is also classed as a carbohydrate, and is found mainly in plant-based foods.

We should be aiming for about 30g of fibre each day.

We consume two different types:

  • Insoluble fibre – largely found in wholemeal and whole-wheat foods, we can’t digest this, so its  function is to help other food and waste pass through the gut, keeping our insides happy.
  • Soluble fibre – found in foods such as oats, legumes, beans, vegetables and fruit. We can’t digest this but the good bugs in our colon can, which keeps them happy, also oats have a proven health claim to reduce blood cholesterol.


Carbohydrates have undoubtedly acquired a bad reputation over recent years.

As long as you remember to rather choose, whole-wheat and less processed carbohydrates such as kumara instead of spuds and wild or brown rice instead of white you should be able to eat your carbohydrates and keep healthy.

We can all certainly benefit from choosing more nutrient-dense foods.

The low down on carbohydrates