- Not all carbs are the same – there are varying types and qualities.
- There is significant evidence to show the health benefits of unrefined carbs.
- Eliminating carbohydrates from your diet can lead to long-term health problems.
Different foods provide our bodies with a variety of nutrients, and we classify each food according to its dominant nutrient.
Most plant foods largely consist of a variety of starches and sugars, classified as carbohydrates.
Carbs are one of three macronutrients (protein and fat being the others). Unfortunately, these are often cast into a negative role and blamed for weight and fat gain.
For this reason, many people fear carbohydrates and refuse to eat them.
Not all carbs are the same
However, in the long term, this may lead to health problems like constipation, elevated cholesterol levels, lethargy, and inflammation.
There are always two sides to the story – carbs are not all the same.
There are the unrefined, nutrient-dense, high-fibre carbohydrates on the one hand, and the refined, nutrient-poor and low-fibre carbs on the other.
It is, therefore, the quality of these foods that matters.
Examining the quality
Refined carbohydrates undergo various processes like milling, during which the outer bran layer and the germ of the grain (containing most of the nutrients) are stripped and removed.
Refined carbs are digested quickly and result in a quick release of glucose into the bloodstream (high glycaemic index).
Examples of these are all bread made from white flour (pita, sourdough, Tramezzini, wraps, pizza, burgers), peeled potatoes, white rice, pasta, couscous, mealie meal, fruit juices, all sugar-based cold drinks, sweets, chocolates, and almost all bakery items.
Whole grains are crushed and "cleaned", but the fibre (bran) and other nutrients are not removed.
When we eat unrefined carbohydrates, the glucose is released more slowly into the bloodstream (low glycaemic index).
Examples of these are seed/health/heavy bread, wholegrain pasta, wild/brown rice, corn on the cob, barley, pearl wheat, quinoa, bulgur wheat, rolled oats, "hi-fibre" breakfast cereals, legumes such as lentils, beans, chickpeas, spelt and all fresh vegetables and whole fruit.
Why does it matter?
There is significant evidence showing the health benefits of choosing whole grains. Here are a few of the benefits:
- A high refined carbohydrate intake is associated with higher systolic blood pressure and a higher risk of major cardiovascular events, obesity, type-2 diabetes, pre-diabetes and fatty liver. The evidence suggests that we should avoid or limit these foods.
- There is a positive association between the gut microbiome and serotonin production (the “feel-good” hormone responsible for our mood). The fibre in whole grains has been shown to improve mental health (relieving anxiety, depression and stress) as it acts as a food source for the billions of bacteria in the gut (microbiome).
- Whole grains are fermented in the gut by the bacteria and produce short-chain fatty acids (acetate, butyrate and propionate) that decrease inflammation in the body and cause the liver to produce less cholesterol.
- Fibre significantly assists with regular bowel movements and ensures that toxins are regularly flushed from the gut. This is beneficial in reducing the risk of colon cancer.
- Fibre can assist with cholesterol clearance through bile binding, which ultimately benefits cardiovascular health. (The fibre binds to cholesterol in the gut, which is then excreted).
How to choose high-fibre foods
When choosing carbs, check for a minimum of 6g of dietary fibre per 100g on the label. This is a better way of ensuring the food contains the right amount of fibre than believing the health claims on the packaging.
While "good" carbs are your best choice, you can, however, also enjoy refined carbohydrate foods from time to time.