What Are Carbohydrates?
1. Carbohydrates are part of a large group of organic compounds that occur in foods and living tissues, including sugars, starch, and cellulose. They contain hydrogen and oxygen and water and are broken down to release energy. Carbohydrates are readily converted into glucose, which is the form of sugar that's most easily transported and used by the body, in contrast to proteins and fats.
2. There are two types of carbohydrate: complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates are usually referred to as starch or starchy foods. They are found naturally in foods such as wholegrain cereals and brown rice, but are also refined in processed foods and they provide fibre in the diet as well as sugar. Simple carbohydrates tend to be sugar based.
3. A diet that is too high in carbohydrates may upset the delicate balance of your body's blood sugar level, which can lead to fluctuations of energy and mood, leaving you feeling irritated and tired.
4. Carbohydrates can be separated into groups based on the Glycaemic Index, which measures how high and how quickly blood glucose levels change after eating carbohydrates. The higher the Glycaemic Index, the higher the rise in blood sugar and the longer it takes to return to normal. For a healthy diet, focus on foods with a low Glycaemic Index, such as whole grains, oats, and whole wheat pasta.
5. Foods with a high Glycaemic Index have been linked to elevated risks of heart disease and diabetes.
How Are Carbohydrates Used in the Body?
6. The body uses carbohydrates as its main source of energy because they are easily digested and broken down into glucose. The body needs glucose to perform a wide range of functions. Most of the energy (calories) that we use should come from carbohydrates rather than protein or fat.
7. Not all carbs are created equal. Refined carbs, which are found in white bread and white pasta, sugar, cookies and cakes – mainly in processed foods. They will give you little nutritional value and are broken down within the body and used quickly. You'll have a quick energy burst and then you'll feel tired or hungry again.
8. Complex carbs, including vegetables and whole-grain products don't cause that spike in blood sugar levels because the body breaks them down more slowly. You feel fuller for longer and these carbs will also contain fibre, vitamins and minerals.
How Many Carbohydrates Do I Need in My Diet?
9. Carbohydrates should account for 45% - 65% of the calories in the diet, which would be approximately 225 g – 325 g of carbohydrates of a 2000-calorie diet.
Why Do Carbohydrates Make Us Feel Bloated?
10. Carbohydrates form glucose when digested, which is then transported around the body via blood before being taken into our cells to be converted into energy. The pancreas, located in the abdomen, secretes the hormone insulin, controlling how much glucose is taken into the cells. If you have excess glucose (you've eaten too many carbs) the excess is converted into glycogen and stored in the liver or in fat around the body. Fat can act as a reserve for when you need more energy and in this case a second hormone called glucagon is secreted by the pancreas which then transforms the glycogen back into glucose, to be released back into the blood to be used as energy.
However, eating carbohydrates causes some of us to feel bloated. This is usually found among people who are sensitive to carbohydrate metabolism. Among these people gas is created and cannot be passed through the normal mechanisms of belching or flatulence. Instead, the gas builds up in the abdominal area and causes bloating. It can be accompanied by pain, which is only relieved by passing gas or having a bowel movement.
11. You do need carbohydrate-rich foods to give your body energy. Not getting enough carbs can make you feel sluggish, irritable or unable to concentrate, but getting too many can cause you to feel the same way so it is a balancing act.
Foods High in Carbohydrates
12. You can find high levels of carbohydrates in vegetables, fruit, grain, pasta, bread, rice, milk, potatoes, baked goods, cereals, beans, peas, lentils, nuts and popcorn. You'll also find them in many processed foods such as biscuits, pizzas, cakes, sauces and pastries and pies. Remember that not all carbs are created equal. Refined sugars (found in processed foods) should make up only 11 per cent of your daily diet.
How to Cut Back on Your Carbohydrates and Eat More Healthily
13. Current advice suggests that you should get half your energy needs from carbohydrates, with at least one third of our daily intake of food being starchy carbohydrates. You should get this from a balanced diet.
14. Aim to eat a tennis ball sized amount of complex carbohydrates per day. If you have more than that at one meal, cut down at the next one.
15. Fill up on non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens and mushrooms.
16. Remember that foods high in sugar that contain simple carbohydrates such as cakes, pastries, chocolate will also be high in fat or prepared with fat.
17. Use starchy foods, such as wholegrain bread, pasta etc., which are rich in fibre, to help control appetite so that you don't feel hungry.
18. Your daily diet should be a balance of carbohydrate and protein. As a guide, your plate should contain twice as many carbs as protein.
19. Finish your meal with fruit, as this will ensure you get a balance of complex and simple carbohydrates.
20. Choose high fibre wholegrain cereals for breakfast, and favour wholemeal bread.
21. Lean protein, such as fish or chicken, with a small amount of carbohydrate will get you through the afternoon.
22. Large carbohydrate meals make you slow and sleepy so save them for the evening.