Carbohydrates are an ideal source of energy for the body. This is because they can be converted more readily into glucose, the form of sugar that's transported and used by the body, than proteins or fats can.
Even so, a diet too high in carbohydrates can upset the delicate balance of your body's blood sugar level, resulting in fluctuations in energy and mood which leave you feeling irritated and tired.
It is better to balance your intake of carbohydrates with protein, a little fat and fibre
There are two types of carbohydrate: Complex and Simple
Complex carbohydrates are often referred to as starch or starchy foods. They are found naturally in foods and also refined in processed foods.
Complex carbohydrates as natural starches are found in:
- Brown rice
- Root vegetables
- Sweet corn
- Wholegrain cereals
- Wholemeal breads
- Wholemeal cereals
- Wholemeal flour
- Wholemeal pasta
Complex carbohydrates as refined starches are found in:
- Biscuits, pastries and cakes
- Sugary processed breakfast cereals
- White bread
- White flour
- White pasta
- White rice
Simple carbohydrates are also known as sugars. They also exist in either a natural or refined form. Natural sugars are found in fruit and vegetables
Refined sugars are found in:
- Biscuits, cakes and pastries
- Honey and jams
- Brown and white cane sugar
- Prepared foods and sauces
- Soft drinks
- Sweets and snack bars
Simple carbohydrates (sugar) cause tooth decay
All carbohydrates form glucose when digested. Glucose is transported around the body via blood and taken into cells to be converted into energy.
The pancreas gland in your abdomen secretes the hormone insulin, which controls the uptake of glucose by your cells.
If you have any excess glucose, this is converted into glycogen â€“ which is stored in the liver or in fat around the body.
When your body needs more energy, a second hormone called glucagon is secreted by the pancreas. This converts the glycogen back into glucose, which is then released into your bloodstream for your cells to use.
This means the body's glucose (sugar) metabolism is a cycle of glucose, insulin and glucagon reactions.
- The slower the release of glucose and hormones, the more stable and sustainable the energy levels of the body.
- The more refined the carbohydrate, the faster the glucose is released into your blood. This can cause peaks and drops in your blood sugar level and less stable energy levels in the body.
Complex carbohydrates provide a slower and more sustained release of energy than simple carbohydrates.
In their natural form they contribute to long-term good health, appetite control and sustained energy levels
Do carbohydrates make you fat?
Eating too much will lead to weight gain, regardless of what foods you get your energy from. Yet while low carb diets have had much publicity, gram for gram carbohydrates contain less calories than fat, protein and alcohol:
- 1g carbohydrate contains 3.75 calories.
- 1g protein contains 4 calories.
- 1g fat contains 9 calories.
- 1g alcohol contains 7 calories
Sugar and starch are found in both healthy and 'unhealthy' foods, so the type of carbohydrates you eat is important for your wellbeing.
- Many foods high in sugar (cakes, pastries, chocolate) are also high in fat or prepared with fat (chips, roast potatoes, sandwiches).
- Starchy foods, such as wholegrain bread, pasta etc, are rich in fibre, which is essential for digestive health and helps control appetite so you don't feel hungry.
Tips for healthy living
- Your daily diet should be a balance of carbohydrate and protein. As a guide, your plate should contain twice as many carbs as protein.
- Base each of your meals on a complex carbohydrate, such as potato, wholemeal bread or brown rice, and include vegetables. Finish the meal with fruit, and this should ensure you get a balance of complex and simple carbohydrates.
- Use high fibre wholegrain cereals as part of your breakfast, and use wholemeal bread for your toast.
- For lunch, choose lean protein, such as fish or chicken, with only a small amount of carbohydrate to get you through the afternoon.
- Large carbohydrate meals will make you slow and sleepy so save your big pasta meal for the evening.
- Cut down on the amount of refined white flour products in your diet, such as white bread, pizza and white pasta and rice. The refining process produces simple carbohydrates and many vitamins and minerals are lost.
- Fruit is naturally high in sugar, which means so are fruit juices and smoothies. In liquid form these sugars can damage your teeth. But these drinks count towards your five a day and contain fibre, vitamins & minerals, so avoid tooth decay, it's best to drink them with a meal.