What are carbs?

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Posted by Linda O'Byrne (Atkins Nutritionist)

This article tells you about what carbs are and if they're important. You will also find information about the glycaemic index and low carbs diet.

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What are carbs?

Carbs – or carbohydrates – are a type of macronutrient found in foods such as vegetables, grains, fruits and other foods, such as some dairy foods. The three groups of carbohydrates are sugars, starches and fibre. Each carbohydrate contains 4 calories per gram. Carbs are one of the macronutrients, with the other two being protein and dietary fat.

The three types of carbs are often categorised as healthy or unhealthy; depending on their structure and therefore their effect on blood sugar. Sugars, and certain starches, are refined and cause a sharp spike in blood sugar whereas fibre containing foods cause a slower spike in insulin and are considered to be healthy carbs.

Are carbs important?

Carbs are important to our health, energy levels and have important roles in metabolism, mood and brain health. Many low carb diets cut carbs to a very low level; at least for a short period; however it’s important to get carbohydrates from sources such as vegetables; even when on a diet. Vegetables are full of fibre as well as important vitamins and antioxidants so shouldn’t be eliminated on any diet. Fibre promotes healthy digestion and has even been linked to low risk of heart disease and diabetes. Starchier vegetables, like potatoes, carrots and corn, contain higher amounts of carbohydrates and can be eaten in smaller amounts. These types of vegetables are often eliminated on low carb diets, at least initially, as they are classed as high carb foods.

Other high carb foods are less important, such as sweets, pop and refined carbs like white bread and pasta. We could get rid of these completely from our diet with no detriment to our health.  Instead, opt for healthy carbs such as those found in whole grains, brown bread and legumes. These two ends of the carb spectrum are referred to as simple or complex carbs, with sugary/refined carbs being the first and healthier, fibre containing whole grains, fruits and vegetables being the latter. There are some simple carbs which are naturally occurring, found in foods such as honey and fruit. Some dairy foods contain carbohydrates too, such as certain cheeses, yoghurt and milk.

What is the glycaemic index?

Different types of carbs have different impact on our blood sugar and this is referred to as the glycaemic index, or GI. This is used to determine the effect different foods have on blood sugar and foods are classed as Low, Medium or High glycaemic. High GI foods would be sugary, refined carbs like sweets; whereas Low GI foods would be non-starchy vegetables.  An example of Low Glycaemic would be broccoli, Medium GI would be Oatmeal and High GI would be a doughnut. You can see that the higher the GI, the less nutritious the food however there are certain foods that are high GI yet considered healthy – such as Watermelon, which has a GI of 72 and considered high GI.

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What are Low Carb Diets?

 The most popular types of low carb diet are the Atkins diet, Dukan diet, Keto diet and Paleo diet and they differ slightly in their recommendations of what to eat; yet they all insist on a low carb intake.  When following a low carb diet, you eat more protein and fat containing foods; such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs, oils and butter. These are, for the most part, zero carb. Some of these diet encourage you to eat vegetables yet avoid high carb foods like bread, pasta and rice.

How do Low carb diets work?

When you eat carbs, they are converted to glycogen and stored in the body for fuel use. So, by reducing carb intake, your body doesn’t have the glycogen fuel reserve and starts to burn fat for fuel; a process known as ‘ketosis’. On a low carb diet, you tend to stay in the ‘fat burning zone’ until the majority of your excess weight has been lost and then start to add carbs back gradually; which makes it more sustainable and more likely you’ll keep off the weight. However, it’s recommended that sugary, refined carbs are avoided in future to prevent weight gain. 

As you can see, some carbs are very important to our health whereas others may have a detrimental effect. There’s no denying that complex carbs are the preferred choice and add variety, interest and taste to our everyday meals too.