Few topics in health get people as overheated as carbs. Love him or loathe him Dr Atkins and his carb-free diet put the cat among the nutritional pigeons. One day we’re told to cut them out, then to pile them high. Good carbs and bad carbs; carbs as angels and carbs as demons. It’s hard to know where to turn. So here we lay out a few simple truths about this terribly misunderstood little molecule.
What are carbs?
Carbs are a macronutrient, one of three food sources that make up the bulk of our diets. Protein and fat are the other two. Most of the food we eat contains more than one – it’s usually a mix of carbs, fats and proteins. There are three main types of carb in our food: sugar, fibre and starch.
Do we need them?
Carbs are our body’s preferred energy source. They are broken down into glucose (sugar) before being absorbed into the bloodstream to power our bodies – which is why endurance athletes like cyclists and marathon runners talk about carbo-loading.
Although we can probably get by without them – fat and protein provide energy – many sources of carbs, like fruit and veg, contain other things our bodies need, like minerals, vitamins and fibre. Cut these out along with the carbs and your diet can tank.
Good and bad carbs
What it comes to carbs, quality matters. Some are just much better for you than others. Too many of our carbs are over-refined. Processing strips out fibre and essential nutrients. Sugar, salt and processed fats are heaped in. Cakes, biscuits, white-bread, sweets, fizzy drinks, crisps – they’re all packed with bad carbs.
Although we all like a treat, the key is, don’t overdo it. Consider health swaps. If your sweet tooth is aching, try raisins or other dried fruits. Try dark chocolate instead of milk.
Here are a few good and bad carbs.
· Sweet potatoes
· Sweetened fizzy drinks
· White bread
· White pasta
· Energy drinks
Sugar is not so sweet
Keep an eye out for processed sugar in your food – often in the guise of HFCS or high-fructose corn syrup. Processed sugars are increasingly linked to metabolic problems – and to obesity and heart disease. Look at food labels. You’ll find processed sugars in unexpected places: organic yoghurts and many breakfast cereals are crammed with it. Swap sweetened and processed cereals for good-old porridge – or stick some scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast. Go for Greek-style yoghurt.
Starchy foods like bread, rice, potatoes and pasta should be our main source of carbs. But just like sugar, quality counts. Choose wholegrain bread and pasta. Eat potatoes with their skins on; swap white rice for brown. Fibre slows down the release of sugar, so you don’t get energy spikes and mood swings.
Go high fibre
We don’t digest dietary fibre – so it passes right on through us. But it keeps our stomachs healthy along the way. It prevents constipation, helps ward off bowel cancer and looks after our gut biome. Go wholemeal and eat fresh fruit, pulses and lightly-cooked veg.
Be clever – swap lettuce leaves for bread tortillas. Use spiralised butternut squash instead of pasta. Cauliflower can be a good stand-in for fried rice.
No, it’s not an additive. Acrylamide is a chemical linked to cancer that turns up if you cook starchy foods too hot. To avoid it:
- Go for a golden yellow colour – or lighter – when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods
- Follow the instructions on packaged foods like chips and roast potatoes
- Eat a healthy diet and get your 5 a day.