Quite simply, our bodies need food and water to survive. But what foods we eat determines how well our bodies respond. No different than a car that breaks down in the middle of the road when it runs out of gas, our own energy can crash if we don’t provide our bodies with the right kind of nutrients. Vitamins and minerals are important co-factors in our body’s cellular metabolism but they don’t provide any calories. They are very important in defending our body against infections and keeping us healthy. Macronutrients, on the other hand, do provide us with calories, and therefore, are major energy sources in the foods that we eat. There are three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) and these are the superstars in our diets. Carbohydrate and protein provide four calories per gram while fats provide nine calories per gram. It’s important to include the proper balance of these three nutrients in your menu planning to ensure a healthy diet but you still need to be careful about selecting the right foods in these groups.
In this article we will be looking at carbohydrates only. Carbohydrates have been villainized in diet books for many years now, including the popular Atkins and South Beach diets. Both diets distinguish between complex and simple carbohydrates, which are often referred to as the “good and the bad” carbohydrate, respectively. But most recently, the Paleo diet has replaced these popular diet books on the bookshelf. A Paleo diet typically includes lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and completely removes dairy products, legumes and grains from the diet. It includes foods solely sought by hunting and gathering measures before farming came into practice over 10,000 years ago. To date, there are no evidence-based studies to demonstrate that any of these diets are better than the others.
Okay, let’s get back to the good and bad carbs. These two types of carbohydrates differ in many ways, but mostly on how quickly the body processes them, so let’s look at the science of what happens when carbohydrates enter your body. All carbohydrates contain sugars, which eventually get converted into glucose which is our body’s major fuel source. While our muscles can get energy from other metabolic processes in our bodies, our brain depends on glucose, exclusively, for its proper function.
First, let’s look at the “bad” carbohydrates. They are often referred to as simple or refined. These foods supply calories, but are marginal for providing nutrients that are useful for our body. They can cause blood sugar to spike quickly and an impaired glucose tolerance, which can lead to diabetes if left untreated. Eating too many simple carbohydrates can lead to weight gain. An elevated blood sugar triggers the release of the hormone, insulin. Insulin’s main function is to lower blood sugars, but it also transports fat around your body. An overproduction of insulin, also called hyperinsulinemia, results when your body finds itself having to produce more insulin in order to achieve a normal blood sugar level. You may notice how hungry you become soon after eating a bagel or a plate of pasta. This occurs because when you eat these specific types of carbohydrate foods, the surge of insulin causes your blood sugar to drop, sending out a sensation of hunger. Our instinct is to reach for a quick acting carbohydrate to get our blood sugar back up. It’s your body’s message telling you that it’s time to eat.
Simple carbohydrates have either been stripped of their fiber through manufacturing or are naturally low in fiber to begin with. Because of this, the body metabolizes them more quickly. Examples of simple carbohydrates are: granulated sugar, corn and maple syrups, honey, molasses, fruit juices, soda, white bread and white pasta. Naturally occurring sugars like lactose, found in milk products, and fructose, in fruit juices are also referred to as simple carbohydrates.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance. For most American women, this is no more than 100 calories per day and no more than 150 calories per day for men (or about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men).
Now, let’s look at the “good” carbohydrates, also called complex carbohydrates. These are not refined and have more fiber, so the body processes them more slowly. Examples of complex carbohydrates are: fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain bread, legumes, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and whole-wheat pasta. These foods are high in fiber which is the part in plant foods that humans can’t digest. Fiber is an important nutrient in our health. It slows down the absorption of nutrients eaten at a meal, including carbohydrates. The slowing down helps the ups and downs in your blood sugar levels, reducing your risk for type-2 diabetes. Certain kinds of fiber found in oats, legumes, and some fruits can also lower blood cholesterol, adding up to 4 grams of fiber per serving.
The Institute of Medicine concluded (2001-2002) that dietary fiber helps to prevent constipation, lowers cholesterol and blood sugar, helps the immune system, and improves gastrointestinal bacterial fermentation. The recommended daily amount of fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. After age 50, the fiber needs drop to 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men.
The nutritional facts contained on food labels can help you decide which foods to buy. Right now, there is no section for “added sugars” on the food label. That should be coming soon but until then, look for foods with at least 3 grams of dietary fiber in them.
List of Good Carbohydrates To Include in Your Diet:
- Steel cut or rolled oats are packed with carbohydrates and fiber, which helps to stabilize blood sugars and keeps energy readily available.
- Potatoes are a white vegetable packed with potassium and fiber. The best choice is sweet potatoes.
- Bananas are packed with carbohydrates, Vitamin B-6, and potassium, which helps prevent muscle cramping and spasms.
- Quinoa is fast becoming a favorite for breakfast. It’s a gluten-free grain and is a good source of protein, fiber, and magnesium.
It’s important to have a balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates in your diet with the emphasis being on more complex carbohydrates and less on the simple ones. An easy way to ensure the right kind of carbohydrates is to make good choices at all three meals and snacks during the day. Remember, people who eat whole grains as part of a healthy diet have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases like heart disease, constipation, and obesity.
So, remember to include whole grain bread and cereals at breakfast and consider adding legumes to your salads or choose a bean based soup or vegetarian chili at lunch. Use the ChooseMyPlate method and fill half of your plate at dinner with fruits and vegetables, and whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, or whole-wheat pasta at dinner. Select fresh fruits for desserts. Good snack choices include fresh or dried fruit, a whole grain granola bar, or hummus with vegetable sticks or whole grain crackers. For more tips about how to eat healthy, make sure to check out ChooseMyPlate.