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What are Carbohydrates?

15th October 2016
Carbohydrates are sugars that break down inside the body to create glucose. 

Glucose is moved around the body in the blood and is the primary source of energy for the brain, muscles, and other essential cells. 
Unlike protein and fat, carbohydrates are not essential to human life.

The body can produce glucose from protein and fat, however carbohydrates are the most convenient and quickest way for the body to produce energy.

There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex:
Simple Carbohydrates 

Simple carbohydrates refer to sugars with a simple molecular construction of one or two parts.  

Because of their simple molecular structure the body can process these simple sugars quickly – this leads to an energy spike, a sudden rush of energy as sugars are converted to glucose followed by a low once the process is complete and the simple carbohydrates have been used.  

Processed and refined sugars tend to have a high Glycaemic Index (GI) – affecting blood sugar levels quickly - compared to naturally occurring complex carbohydrates which in turn have a lower GI.

Refined sugar is a common source of simple carbohydrates in the modern diet.  

Many processed, packaged and fast foods contain simple carbohydrates as ‘sugar’ is used as a flavour enhancer and can satisfy our palates for sweet food.   Simple carbohydrates from added sugar have little or no nutritional value and are often described as ‘empty calories’.  Most people can benefit from reducing their intake of added sugar (simple carbohydrates).  If you buy processed and packaged foods, choose those with less added sugar, reduce consumption of sugary foods such as cakes, biscuits (cookies), sweets (candy) and regular (not diet) soft drinks.

Simple carbohydrates are not always bad and also exist naturally in foods that do provide nutritional benefits, notably fruits, milk and other dairy products.  Most fruits contain good levels of fibre, vitamins and micro minerals as well as antioxidants.  Milk and dairy products are good sources of protein and calcium, most people agree that both fruit and dairy products are important to a well-balanced healthy diet.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates refer to sugars with a complex molecular structure of three or more parts; due to the complex structure of these molecules it takes the body longer to break them down to produce the glucose it needs for energy.  Foods rich in complex carbohydrates also contain valuable vitamins, minerals and fibre which are vital to overall health and wellbeing.

As foods containing complex carbohydrates are processed more slowly by the body they can provide sustained energy levels over longer periods of time than simple carbohydrates.  The Glycaemic Index (GI) of foods rich in complex carbohydrates is therefore lower. 

Foods rich in healthy complex carbohydrates include whole grains, wholemeal bread and wholegrain breakfast cereals, oats, pasta, rice (especially brown rice), potatoes, beans, lentils and chickpeas.

What if I Eat Too Many Carbohydrates?

Eating too many carbohydrates will lead to weight gain, this is because the body will store unused glucose for later use.  

Usually, however, it is how the carbohydrates are prepared which will have the greatest effect on weight gain.  Although chocolate and apples both have simple carbohydrates, chocolate also contains fat – an apple on the other hand contains fibre, vitamins and minerals.  French fries, chips, crisps and roast potatoes are all prepared using fat and therefore contain fat – baked and boiled potatoes are better for you as they have not been prepared in fat.  Similarly, steamed rice is much better than fried rice and bread is better for you without adding butter or margarine.

In Summary

Carbohydrates contain the glucose that the body needs for energy.  There are two main types of carbohydrates, simple and complex.  The more refined the carbohydrate the more quickly it is converted to glucose and released into the bloodstream.  This can cause peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels and results in variable energy levels – refined or simple carbohydrates should make up only about 10% of your daily carbohydrate intake. 

Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice, whole grains, pasta and oats release glucose more slowly into the bloodstream providing more stable and sustainable energy levels to the body.

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