Carbohydrate

Why do you need it?

Carbohydrates provide us with glucose – the main source of energy our bodies and all our cells need. It is the fuel that keeps us active. Not all carbohydrates are the same; there are three different types found in food – sugar, starch and fibre, and they each behave very differently in the body. Fibre is the only type of carbohydrate we can’t convert to glucose and use as an energy source, but it has other important functions.

Our bodies run on carbs so don’t avoid them. Choose the good ones and you’ll be the best you can be. A steady energy supply from good carbs also makes you feel good, physically and mentally.

Deficiency

Low-carb, ketogenic or paleo diets usually focus on high protein and fatty foods and severely restrict carbohydrates. This forces your body to change and draw energy mostly from fat and protein, which makes you less hungry and leads to weight loss. But – and there’s a big but! – these diets are effective only for short term weight loss and have a whole range of unpleasant adverse effects such as constipation, headaches, kidney fatigue, bad breath, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased cholesterol levels and more. In the long term, they are not any more effective for weight loss and maintenance than low-fat diets which don’t have these nasty side effects and allow your body to function naturally.

The long-term restriction of carbohydrates in the diet can lead to serious complications including heart problems, osteoporosis, kidney damage, increased cancer risk, difficulty moving or taking physical activity and even sudden death

There are three different types of carbohydrates:

Sugar

Sugar (eg glucose and fructose) is digested quickly and so causes a sharp spike in blood sugar levels – this is not good as over time it can increase the risk of diabetes, so avoid using lots of sugar in your food and drink. Fruit and vegetables naturally contain the sugar fructose, but their fibre slows down the speed at which it is absorbed so there’s no need to limit how much fruit and veg you eat! Beware of fruit juices – unless they are freshly made, they are usually pasteurised which destroys most of the goodness leaving little more than sweet water. Excess sugar may be stored as fat in the body, so eating too much can lead to weight gain. 

Starch

Starch is made up of simple sugars linked together in complex structures. We digest starch by breaking it down to single glucose molecules. Starch is a natural part of many foods (eg wholegrains, pulses, root vegetables, squash etc) which belong in a healthy diet. However, refined starches, used in processed foods such as cookies, savoury snacks and sweets, are often stripped of their nutrients. They are not healthy because, like simple sugars, your body digests them quickly.

Fibre

Fibre is the name for a large group of complex carbohydrates that we cannot digest. Fibre is a very important and beneficial part of your diet that keeps your digestive system healthy, slows sugar absorption, helps you maintain a healthy weight and can reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, some cancers (particularly bowel cancer) and diabetes. Fibre also encourages the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut. Fibre is naturally found in fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds but never in animal foods. Find out more about fibre below.

There are two types of fibre: Click to read more…

Soluble fibre dissolves in water and forms a gel, which can help make you feel fuller for longer after a meal and makes stools soft and easier to pass. It is also fermented in the colon by your gut bacteria, which can release health-beneficial compounds. Soluble fibre is described as being a prebiotic – something that promotes beneficial bacteria in the gut by providing them with suitable ‘food’. The best sources of soluble fibre are wholegrains, fruit, pulses (peas, beans, lentils) and root vegetables.

Insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve but absorbs water. It increases the stool bulk and helps keep you regular. It is crucial for your digestive system to work properly and is very effective in helping prevent and treat constipation and disorders such as diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Fibre is partially fermented by gut bacteria so is also beneficial in that way because they release health-promoting compounds. The best sources of insoluble fibre include wholegrains and cereals, unpeeled fruit and dried fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

How much do you need?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests carbs should make up 55 to 75 per cent of your energy intake or total daily calories. To help you meet this target, they recommend adults eat at least 400 grams (five 80 gram servings) of fruit and vegetables a day. They also say you should aim for at least 25 grams of fibre a day. For children and adolescents, see below.

Click to read more…

For children and adolescents WHO suggests the following intakes of fruit and vegetables:

  • 2-5 years old, at least 250 grams per day
  • 6-9 years old, at least 350 grams per day
  • 10 years or older, at least 400 grams per day 

And the following intakes of naturally occurring dietary fibre:

  • 2-5 years old, at least 15 grams per day
  • 6-9 years old, at least 21 grams per day
  • 10 years or older, at least 25 grams per day

Where to find healthy carbohydrates

The healthiest sources of carbohydrates include wholegrain foods, fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds. 

  • Wholegrains: Maize flour (used to make posho – maize porridge), brown rice, wholewheat bread and millet are all Ugandan staples rich in carbohydrates.
  • Fruit: Bananas (the less ripe the better), mangoes, papayas and guavas provide a good source of carbohydrates.
  • Vegetables: matooke (green banana), pumpkin, spinach, amaranth, okra, cabbage, eggplant (aubergine), plantains (especially when green), sweet potatoes (best eaten with the skin) and cassava can all contribute to your healthy carb intake too.
  • Pulses: Popular varieties include yellow, green and split peas, red kidney beans, black beans, mung beans, cowpeas (black-eyed peas) and red ‘masoor’ lentils. They are a versatile staple in Uganda and are used in curries, soups, stews, salads or simply boiled and served as a side dish and provide an excellent source of carbohydrates and protein.
  • Nuts and seeds: Peanuts (with skins on), cashews and sesame (simsim) seeds contain healthy carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, protein and other nutrients.

These foods release their energy gradually and promote good health by providing healthy carbs and fibre along with many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Unhealthy sources of carbohydrates:Avoid eating too much processed or refined foods such as white bread, pastry, sugary and savoury processed snacks, cakes, sweets, fizzy and sugary drinks. These contain easily digested carbohydrates that turn to sugar fast and may contribute to weight gain, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.