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Demystifying Carbs: A Q&A with a Dietitian

Content by Anna Kallianteri, RD, BSc, MSc, Dietitian

In this Q&A session with a Uniquely Health dietitian we unravel the mysteries of carbohydrates (or carbs), a commonly misunderstood macronutrient. Let’s explore the power of carbohydrates together for optimal well-being!

Why is it important to understand what carbohydrates are?

One of the most debated food groups in the media is carbs. Widely used terms such as “good carbs”, “bad carbs” and trends such as “carb -loading” and “carb-free diets” can be misleading, leaving us confused and anxious about what we are actually eating and whether it is good for us. Diets that promote low-carb or no-carb approaches, often with promises of rapid weight loss or improved health, can create a fear or aversion towards carbohydrates. Achieving a healthy relationship with food isn’t just about what we eat, but also what is the language we use and how we interpret the media.

In our modern world and everyday life, carbohydrates are highly available and accessible which encourages their consumption. In many societies, carbs, especially refined and processed ones, are often more readily available and affordable than their healthier alternatives. This can lead to an overconsumption of easily accessible and refined carb-rich foods. Furthermore, sedentary and busy lifestyles drive people to eat convenience food and exercise less. Carb-rich fast foods, ready-to-eat meals, and processed snacks are often convenient options for quick meals on the go which can contribute to higher consumption of these lower nutritional value foods.

So, what are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates come in various forms, are in a lot of common foods such as grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, fruits, dairy products and sweeteners (1).

What are the different types of carbohydrates?

A lot of people think that carbs equal sugar and that foods containing carbs are found in foods such as sweets, pasta and bread. However, the reality is that carbs are found in a much wider variety of foods and are classified into the following types (1, 5):

  • Simple carbs (or free and added sugars): contain one or two sugar molecules. These types of carbohydrates act as instant form of energy and cause a quick rise in our blood sugar and insulin after consumed. Simple carbs are found in foods such as table sugar, corn syrup, sweeteners, honey, fruit juices, sweets and carbonated drinks that contain sugar. 
  •  Natural sugars: are another type of simple carbs but which are naturally occurring. These natural sugars are found naturally in fruit (as fructose) or milk (as lactose).
  • Complex carbs (including starches): contain three or more sugar molecules. Due to their complex chemical structure, this type of carb takes longer to digest and to be broken down by our bodies. Complex carbs provide a slower and more stable rise in our blood sugar that gives a slow release in energy. A few examples are whole fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, beans, lentils and pulses.
  • Starches: are a subtype of complex carbs that come from plants, and consist of a large number of sugar molecules. Some examples include potatoes, wheat, chickpeas. 
  • Fibre: is a non-digestible type of complex carbs. Fibre has the unique ability to act as a bulking agent, which helps maintain healthy gut and digestion. There are two subtypes of fibre:
    •  insoluble fibre and includes foods such as potato skins, brown rice, seeds and bran cereal.
    • soluble fibre includes fresh fruit, oats, broccoli.  

What are the benefits of consuming carbohydrates?

Depending on their type, carbohydrates offer a multitude of health benefits to our bodies. Generally speaking, our vital organs and our brain need a combined average of 170g/day of glucose to allow them to properly function. Also, our brain is an energetically “expensive” organ, and despite only representing 2% of our body weight, it consumes approximately 20% of energy (2). 

Evidence suggests that fibre rich foods have a protective effect on our gut health and promote a diverse gut microbiota (the different bacteria that live in our gut). The “richer” and more diverse our gut is, the healthier we are. 

Also, carbohydrates have been identified to have mood-enhancing properties, and when consumed in adequate amounts for each person, they can promote good mental health. 

Consuming carbohydrates can also protect us from the development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, reducing inflammation, the development of certain types of cancers and more (2). Although, it very important to note that, it is the nature and quality of carbs rather than the amount consumed, that can have this effect (3).

What are the negatives of consuming carbs?

While carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet, there can be potential negatives associated with their consumption, especially when consumed in excessive amounts or in certain forms. Here are some of the negatives of consuming carbs:

  1. Weight Gain: Consuming excessive amounts of carbohydrates, particularly those high in refined sugars and processed grains, can contribute towards weight gain.
  2. Increased Risk of Chronic Diseases: Diets rich in refined carbohydrates have been linked to an increased risk of chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. High sugar intake can negatively impact blood sugar control and contribute to insulin resistance.
  3. Blood Sugar Imbalances: Simple carbohydrates, especially those with high glycaemic index values, can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, followed by crashes. This can lead to feelings of fatigue, hunger, and difficulty maintaining steady energy levels throughout the day.
  4. Dental Issues: Foods high in refined sugars, such as sugary beverages and sweets, can contribute to dental cavities and tooth decay when consumed frequently and not properly managed through oral hygiene practices.
  5. Nutrient Imbalances: Relying heavily on refined carbohydrates may lead to a diet lacking in essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre. This can compromise overall nutritional balance and hinder optimal health.

What is the recommended carbs intake for adults?

As a rule of thumb, national authorities and nutritional guidelines have come to suggest that as adults, our daily intake of carbs should make up between 45-65% of our total daily energy – the majority of which should be from wholegrains. Only around 5% of our total energy intake from carbs should be coming from free sugars. For fibre in particular, our daily intake as adults should be 30g (if not more) (2, 4). 

How can we support you with healthy eating at Uniquely Health?

Providing clarity so you can feel more informed and calm when making decisions around what you eat provides great value to our team. At Uniquely Health, we have a dedicated team of clinicians, that are research and data-driven, including a registered dietitian that can help you debunk myths, identify the real facts around food and create personalised recommendations just for you. 

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References

1.     Holesh, J.E., Aslam, S. and Martin, A., 2022. Physiology, Carbohydrates. 2021 Jul 26. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing26

2.     Clemente-Suárez, V.J., Mielgo-Ayuso, J., Martín-Rodríguez, A., Ramos-Campo, D.J., Redondo-Flórez, L. and Tornero-Aguilera, J.F., 2022. The Burden of Carbohydrates in Health and Disease. Nutrients14(18), p.3809.

3.     Ludwig, D.S., Hu, F.B., Tappy, L. and Brand-Miller, J., 2018. Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease. Bmj361.

4. Public Health England. (2015). SACN Carbohydrates and Health Report. 

5. BDA. Carbohydrates: Fact Sheet. Accessed from: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/carbohydrates.html