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Are Carbohydrates Friends Or Foes?

The past few decades have seen a gradual shift in people’s mentality from 'fats' to 'carbs' today. Fats were once considered a well-known villain in the journey for weight reduction. Recently, carbs have joined the list and is in a bad shape.

In terms of nutrition, Carbohydrates are macronutrients just like protein and fats. They mainly comprise sugar and starch that break down to form glucose i.e. the simplest form of energy for one to function.

The past few decades have seen a gradual shift in people’s mentality from ‘fats’ to ‘carbs’ today. Fats were once considered a well-known villain in the journey for weight reduction. Recently, carbs have joined the list and is in a bad shape.

Off-late individuals have been extracting carbohydrates from their diet as a measure to lose weight. Thanks to over-the-counter information available on the internet which forces one to believe that you are doomed if carbohydrates remain a part of your diet.

Endless carbohydrate bashing is found all over social media and various other platforms that have lead people to believe that carbohydrates can derail their health and fitness goals, to say the least. Having said that, it is important to dwell on to the truth and understand whether carbohydrates are truly friends or foes.

What are carbohydrates?

Chemically, carbohydrates are molecules that have carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms wherein hydrogen-oxygen atoms are in the ratio 2:1.

In terms of nutrition, Carbohydrates are macronutrients just like protein and fats. They mainly comprise sugar and starch that break down to form glucose i.e. the simplest form of energy for one to function.

Dietary carbohydrates are often broken down into three different categories.

Sugar– Sweet and Short-chain carbohydrates present in foods. For example-glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose.

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Starch- Long chains of glucose molecules that are broken down into glucose in the digestive system.

Fibre- Fibre is of two distinct types – soluble and insoluble fiber. It cannot be digested by humans efficiently, but, they are friends of gut microbiome/microbiota which is necessary for the proper functioning of the human body.

In plain words, sugars, and starches are responsible for producing glucose which is the main source of energy for the body – brain, central nervous system, and red blood cells. Dietary fiber is the non-digestible form of carbohydrates and lignin that are naturally found in plants.

Carbohydrates are also divided into sub-categories, namely Simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (starches and fiber).

Simple carbohydrates are also known as fast-acting carbohydrates. They are easily absorbed in the bloodstream and insulin spikes instantly. Insulin is a hormone that is required to streamline glucose into your body cells.

It is commonly found in honey, molasses, fructose syrups, corn syrup, fruit syrup, maple syrup, candies, soda, refined sugar, brown sugar, refined flour, fruit concentrate, and milk.

Complex carbohydrates are also known as slow-acting carbohydrates. They are digested slowly at a leisurely rate and do not produce immediate insulin spike. This results in a steady release of energy or fuel in the blood, unlike simple carbohydrates.

It is found in grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, and beans.

Therefore, not all carbohydrates create equal amount of insulin even when the end result is glucose.

Which carbohydrates should you consume?

The obvious answer would be complex carbohydrates (starches and fiber) because it leads to gradual insulin spikes rather than a spurt as seen in simple carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates should be avoided as much as possible because while these can provide instant energy, these foods are high in glycemic index, get digested quickly, leading to an instant spike in blood sugar level and lacks fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are empty calories in reality.

What are the benefits of consuming complex carbohydrates?

  • Complex carbohydrates provide a slow release of energy which prevents a ‘’crash’’ or afternoon slump that you are most likely to face while eating simple carbohydrates.
  • As complex carbohydrates are rich in fiber, they ensure smooth bowel movements and ease digestion.
  • When an individual is looking to lose weight, the consumption of complex carbohydrates is necessary as it boosts metabolism.
  • Sleep is an integral part of each person’s daily routine. Certain foods rich in complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and brown rice contain tryptophan and oatmeal has melatonin which helps in relaxation and enhance the quality of sleep.
  • Complex carbohydrates have the innate power of keeping you full for longer durations and hence, the daily recommended fiber intake is between 25gms and 30gms.
  • Adequate carbohydrate consumption is required for optimal brain function. Foods like beans, nuts, oats, and seeds alleviate mood and improve focus. Not consuming enough carbohydrates can lead to brain fog, lightheadedness, disturbed concentration, and feeling sad.
  • Consumption of complex carbohydrates can have a calming effect ultimately reducing anxiety and nervousness. A bowl of oatmeal, a banana, and mashed sweet potato can enhance your mood.
  • People suffering from diabetes, dyslipidemia, obesity, heart diseases, and hypertension can highly benefit from consuming complex carbs.

How much of carbohydrates should you consume daily?

As per studies, one must consume 50-55% of carbohydrates ideally, while the traditional Indian diet has about 60% of it on an average.

To wrap, complex carbohydrate consumption does not lead to obesity or isn’t a contributing factor until it’s consumed in moderation.

Complex carbohydrates are friends, in the real sense.

Image credit: Pexels

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About the Author

Huda Shaikh

A Nutritionist, Clinical Dietitian, Speaker, health/fitness blogger, online show host, menu planner, menstrual health, and holistic health advocate who runs a nutrition website named NutriBond and a movement named the Period movement. She loves read more...

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