Understanding carbs: the good, the bad and the healthy

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Carbs are not all created equal. Find out how the different types impact your diet…

Carbs have been made the villain of the diet world. All those nasty little starchy foods out to make you pile on the pounds. But are celebs who follow a no carb diet like Gwyneth Paltrow and Rihanna misleading us?

What is a carb?
It's all getting a bit confusing. Let's go back to basics. What is a carb?

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your body, in fact they provide more than 60 per cent of the amount of energy required to get you through the day.

Carbs are all made up of different types of sugar molecules. As there are lots of different types of sugar molecule, there are different types of carbs.

Most carbs come from fruits, vegetables, grains and beans. Dairy is the only product to come from an animal that has carbs.

The body converts all carbs into glucose or blood sugar, which the body then uses as energy. If there is too much blood sugar, it turns it into fat and stores it for a rainy day somewhere safe like on our thighs or stomach.

Simple vs. complex carbs
Simple carbs are made up of simple sugars. They are refined sugars and have little nutritional value for the body. These are the little blighters that need to be eaten in moderation.

Food stuffs containing simple carbs include anything with table sugar, white flour, honey, milk, sweets and chocolate, fruit, juice, cakes, biscuits, fizzy pop and cereals that usually have a cartoon character on the box.

Complex carbs are exactly that – a bit more complicated. They are made of different sugars bound together in a long chain and include fibre (which is the exception as it doesn't get turned into blood sugar, it just passes through your system) and starch.

Complex carbs don't cause the blood sugar to spike in the same way as simple carbs, and as a result they keep us fuller for longer and they tend to have more nutritional value. Complex carbs provide a slower and more sustained release of energy for your body than simple carbs (which is why you get hungry again after eating fast food).

These can be found in whole grains, beans, root vegetables, wholegrain breads, wholemeal cereals, lentils, broccoli, spinach and nuts.

The Glycaemic Index is a measure of all this as it takes into account the effects that carbs have on blood sugar levels.

Do carbs make you fat?
If you eat too many of them – then yes, just the same as any other food group. If you are eating more than you burn, then obviously you will get fat. However, gram for gram, carbs have less calories than fat and protein.

One gram of carbohydrate contains 3.75 calories compared to four calories in protein, and nine calories in fat.

Current advice is to get half of your energy intake from carbs and ensure that refined sugars only make up 11% of your diet.

At the moment, a healthy diet is deemed one that balances complex and simple carbs with lean protein.

Of course, with all things diet, this is continually being challenged as some argue that you can get all the nutrients and energy you need from better sources, so there is no need to take on board starchy carbs in the first place. And so the battle rumbles on...

What do you think about carbs?

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