Good carbs, bad carbs, low carbs…. what are carbohydrates anyway?
Refined carbohydrates make up a large part of the modern day diet. While carbohydrates are an important component of a healthy diet, refined carbohydrates have been blamed for contributing to the current obesity crisis. So what are carbohydrates and should we include them in our diet?
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are a large group of compounds that include starches, sugars and cellulose/fibre. They can be monosaccharides, disaccharides or polysaccharides. Carbohydrates are important as they supply the body with energy and are used in fat production
With the rise of low-carb diets such as Atkins, carbohydrates have received a bad rap over the last few years and many people have started to avoid eating them. However carbs are one of the three macronutrients that make up the essential parts of a healthy diet – the other two being fat and protein.
In the same way that not all fats are created equal, some carbohydrates are much better to include in your diet than others. Simply put, consumption of good carbs contributes to good health, consumption of bad carbs contributes to bad health.
Complex carbohydrates (good carbs)
Healthy carbohydrates are complex in structure, meaning that they are broken down more slowly in the body and release energy at a steady rate. Carbohydrates that fall into this category include wholegrains, fruits, vegetables and legumes such as beans, peas and lentils.
Eating the right kinds of carbohydrates provides:
– An excellent energy source – carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel source. If you don’t eat enough carbohydrate, the body starts to burn protein and fat for energy. Burning fat can trigger ketosis in the body (a build-up of ketones) which can cause dizziness, weakness, dehydration and headaches. Some people deliberately put their bodies into a ketogenic state to aid weight loss, by eating high protein, low carbohydrate diets. There are conflicting reports on the safety of this in adults, however it has been suggested that eating this way for long periods of time can increase the risk of kidney damage, osteoporosis, abnormal heartbeat, lipid abnormalities and even sudden death1.
– Disease protection – evidence has shown that wholegrains and dietary fibre can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and help to prevent obesity and diabetes2. Most people don’t get enough fibre and a lack of fibre has been linked to bowel cancer3.
– Weight control – eating plenty of vegetables, wholegrains and fruit can help to fill you up without providing an excess of calories. Carbohydrates have fewer calories than fat, so replacing fat in the diet with carbohydrates can help with weight control.
Refined carbohydrates (bad carbs)
When a grain is processed, it is stripped of the bran and the germ that contains B vitamins, fibre and minerals. The resulting white flour is not only a source of additional (usually unnecessary) calories, it is also very, very low in nutrients. This refined flour is broken down extremely rapidly in the body causing spikes in blood glucose, followed by a sudden drop in energy.
The sugar that is not used by the body is stored as fat. Since processed carbohydrates are often over-eaten, and eaten in conjunction with fat, the excess calories that are consumed contribute to weight-gain.
Refined flour is used extensively in the food processing industry. It is cheap and plentiful and is used to make products such as cakes, biscuits, crackers, sauces, pasta, jam, bread, pies and pancakes. White flour, white rice and refined sugar are all examples of refined carbohydrates.
Refined carbohydrates and cancer
It is increasingly believed that constant upsets in a body’s blood-sugar balance creates an environment in which cancer can thrive4,5,6. Further discussion on this topic is outside the scope of this article, however it is theoretically possible that the increase in consumption of refined carbohydrates has at least contributed to the rise in cancer rates over the last few decades. Evidence increasingly suggests that limiting the consumption of refined carbohydrates can not only help to decrease the risk of a person developing cancer, it can also be beneficial to cancer patients trying to slow disease progression7.
Unrefined carbohydrates are a good source of energy for the body and eating these complex carbohydrates has been linked to a reduced risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and bowel cancer. The carbohydrates found in fruit, vegetables, legumes and minimally processed wholegrains, can also help to bulk out meals and provide an important source of dietary fibre.
Refined carbohydrates serve no nutritional purpose. Consumption of refined carbohydrates causes rapid spikes in blood glucose levels, and provides the body with low nutrient calories. Eating a diet high in these refined carbohydrates, also known as ‘bad carbs’, can contribute to obesity and has also been linked to increased risk of cancer.
About the author:
Sonia Nicholas is a Biomedical Scientist and Freelance Clinical Science Writer & Editor. She has been working in the field of clinical science for fifteen years.
Sonia believes that everyone can improve their health by eating a clean diet – a claim that scientific research increasingly supports. Sonia also believes that healthy, clean eating is accessible to all and doesn’t have to be an expensive lifestyle choice.
All of the information on The Green Apple Club website is in line with current, recommended Government guidelines. All of the articles are evidence based and fully scientifically referenced.