Dr Tim Crowe
Food and diets are like fashion: they come into and out of vogue. Carbohydrates have been getting some unwarranted negative press lately, so it is time to bring them back into style. It is the ‘good carbs’ you want more of for the health benefits they will give you
Carbohydrates are an important part of any balanced, varied diet. One of their key roles is to supply a source of energy to the body. Carbohydrates fuel cells all over your body, including your muscles when you exercise and, in the form of glucose, is the optimal fuel for the brain. In other words, your brain works optimally when it gets a steady supply of glucose.
You’ll find carbohydrates in foods like whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, bread, beans, pasta, milk and yogurt. Sugar is simply extracted and refined carbohydrate and can come from a number of plants. The other significant role for carbohydrate is in their form as dietary fiber. There is no more important nutrient for our gut health than fiber.
What is a ‘good carb’?
Not all carbohydrates are the same. We now recognize the importance of having more ‘good carbs’ in our diet. So, what makes a ‘good carb’ choice? Foods that are minimally processed, are good sources of dietary fiber and have a low glycaemic index tick all the boxes.
Here are some tips to get more of the good carbs in your diet.
- Go for grains: Wholegrains are better choices than highly refined grains. Whole wheat or wholegrain foods, quinoa, barley, oats and brown rice all make great choices.
- Fill-up on fiber-rich fruits and vegetables: Eat fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables in close to their natural state without added sugar
- Lead with legumes: Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils are great sources of protein and fiber and many important vitamins and minerals.
Good carbs, good health
Health problems linked to carbohydrates only start when we rely too heavily on overly refined, highly processed carbohydrate foods. The 2011-12 Australian Health Survey found that while 45 percent of our daily energy came from carbohydrates, it was foods like cakes, muffins, confectionery and soft drinks that were over-represented. And many of the grain foods eaten were highly refined and low in fiber and other nutrients compared to the recommended whole grain foods which are packed full of nutrition.
When it comes to good carbohydrate foods to choose, whole grains make it to the top of the list. There is a good reason why these foods are a feature of dietary guidelines around the world.
Just how good whole grains are for us was unveiled in a recent major scientific review looking at diet and chronic disease. Covering decades of research and hundreds of studies, the review found that plant foods, especially whole grain foods, were linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, overweight and obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Whole grain foods are more than a source of energy. They are also an important source of many nutrients. A large study from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that adults who ate the most whole grains also ate more fiber and polyunsaturated fats. They also ate more of all the vitamins and minerals with exception of vitamin B12 and sodium.
For gut, brain and body
The gut plays a big role in your total health. Eating more fiber-rich foods has many health benefits and it’s not just from keeping your bowel habits regular. Our gut microbes are now recognized as key players in our mental and physical health. With a thriving mix of beneficial bacteria, our gut microbiome can keep us healthy so long as we feed them well and it is fiber they thrive on.
The right kinds of carbohydrates can also help with body weight. And the reason has a lot to do with the fiber in them. Dietary fiber helps you to feel full and foods high in fiber are also high in other nutrients, but lower in kilojoules. A review of 15 studies found that eating three servings of fiber-rich whole grains daily was linked favorably to a lower body weight and less belly fat.
Carbohydrates can help with memory too. A study from Tufts University found that when dieters eliminated carbohydrates from their meals, they performed poorly on memory-based tasks. Cognition skills returned to normal when they ate carbohydrates again.
Carbohydrates rank as the number one fuel for hard-working muscles in sport. Athletes on a low-carbohydrate diet can perform well in endurance events, but research studies show they get left behind the pack when they need to call on all their power for an intense burst.
What it all means
Choosing the right types of carbohydrates will do your health the world of good. Rather than shun them, embrace good quality carbs for the variety, taste and aroma they give in your food choices.
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