Carbohydrates tend to cop a lot of flack these days but do we really understand the role they play in keeping our bodies healthy and functioning? Here are the facts you need to know to ensure your family is getting the most out of their food and why carbohydrates should be a major part of their daily diet.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates (carbs) are the body’s main source of energy and are classified into two main groups – simple carbs and complex carbs.
Simple carbohydrates or sugars are easily and quickly broken down by your body and are found in foods containing refined sugar such as lollies and white sugar which offer your body next to no nutritional value. However, simple sugars are also found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, which are both important sources of vitamins, fibre, and calcium.
Complex carbohydrates or starches are found in grain products, starchy vegetables, beans and peas. These carbs take more time for your body to break down into glucose, which means you will feel full for longer than when you eat refined, simple carbs.
But not all complex carbs are created equal. Refined grain products such as white bread, white flour, white rice or pasta have been processed to appeal to a sweeter palate. The refining process removes many of the nutrients and fibre that play such an important role in your body. That is why it is best to select wholegrain cereals, bread, brown rice and pasta that have not lost their vitamins and nutrients through the refining process.
While simple sugars are often given the ‘bad carbs’ label you can see from the above that both forms of carbs offer you good and poor options of carbohydrate rich foods to choose from.
How does our body use carbohydrates?
Your body uses carbohydrates to give energy to the cells in your body by breaking them down into simple sugars to produce glucose (blood sugar) that is then absorbed into your bloodstream. As the level of sugar in your bloodstream rises, your pancreas release a hormone called insulin that is used to transport the sugar from your blood into your cells to be used as energy.
When you consume carbs containing simple sugars or highly refined grains these are easily broken down by your body’s digestive system and cause your blood sugar level to rise rapidly whereas complex carbs, such as wholegrains, take longer to break down and therefore are released more slowly into your bloodstream.
Your body’s cells can only consume a certain amount of the energy provided by glucose at any one time so it transforms leftover supplies of glucose into glycogen and saves it in your liver and muscles. Whatever excess is left after this process is completed is turned into fat.
This is why it is important to eat simple carbs found naturally in foods such as fruit (that are also nutrient rich) and complex carbs found in wholegrain foods that take longer to digest, keeping you fuller for longer and decreasing the likelihood of overeating.
Which carbs should I feed my family?
Making smart choices when it comes to carbs ensures that your kids get the most out of their food. For a healthy, balanced diet, kids above the age of two-years should be using between 50-60% of their daily kilojoule intake on carbohydrates.
Include a variety of complex (starches) and simple (sugars) carbohydrates from the list below:
- Fresh vegetables (include starchy vegetables such as potato, sweet potato and pumpkin)
- Fresh fruit (avoid fruit juice drinks as these are full of unnecessary sugars)
- Legumes and beans (can be added to salads, soups and casseroles)
- Wholegrain cereals
- Wholegrain breads
- Brown rice
- Wholegrain pasta
- Low-fat dairy
Ensure that the majority of your child's carbohydrates are coming from complex sources and avoid or limit items packed full of added or refined sugars.