Health Habits: Fuel Up with Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates or “carbs” are one of the most confusing nutrients. Unfortunately, they’ve been given a bad rap. Myths such as, “Carbs make you gain weight.”, “Avoid the white foods.”, “Fruit is high in carbs.”, or “Only bread, potatoes, and pasta are carbs.” Much misinformation exists about carbohydrates, leading to fad diets. Carbs are found in processed and unprocessed foods. It is the type of carbohydrate that truly matters. They’re found in a variety of foods such as table sugar, jam, fruits, soft drinks, rice, pasta, bread, cereals, beans, lentils, peas, corn, and dairy or dairy products.
Did you know that the brain and body are primarily fueled by carbohydrates? Glucose is the result of broken-down carbohydrates and provides our bodies with the energy it needs. Our bodies are fueled by digestible and indigestible carbohydrates in the food we eat. Fiber is a form of indigestible carbohydrate with health benefits. When consumed in adequate amounts, fiber adds bulk to the stool, stimulates the intestinal muscles and helps with elimination. Other benefits of including fiber (indigestible and digestible) in your diet include the reduction of health risks such as colon cancer, obesity, and cholesterol absorption. Fiber is also known to improve blood sugar control.
To begin knocking down some of the myths of carbohydrates, know that fruit and vegetables contain carbs! Fibrous fruit includes oranges, peaches, raspberries, apples, persimmons, and mango to name a few. Whether you eat them raw, frozen or canned, you can reap the benefits of these wonderful fibrous carb sources. Have sweet potato, beetroot, asparagus, green beans, broccoli or lettuce to add fiber in your diet. Fruit and vegetables also contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that your body needs to support daily activity. When we begin to replace the refined and highly processed foods in our diet with more fresh fruit and vegetables, the excess weight begins to fall off. The calorie load in the two carb-containing food groups is much lower than that of the more processed products. It is not carbohydrates that make us gain weight.
Whole grain sources versus refined grain sources are healthier sources of carbohydrates and fiber. Steel-cut or old-fashioned oats can replace sugary cereals in the morning. Brown rice, barley or quinoa make great side dishes to go with lunch or dinner and let’s not forget about our legumes. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, and alfalfa add flavor and texture to the diet. The Recommended Dietary Allowance of carbohydrates for Americans is about 130 grams per day of digestible carbohydrates to maintain a good supply of glucose for the brain and central nervous system. The leading sources of carbohydrates for adults in the U.S. come from white bread, soda, baked goods, jams, and potatoes. Worldwide, greater intakes of carbohydrate sources from whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are higher than in North America.
To sum it up, carbohydrates are our friends. Opt for the less refined sources of carbohydrates to fuel your brain and central nervous system. Keeping within the recommended amount of carbs per day, health risks for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure can be reduced or avoided. If there are concerns for particular health conditions and you’re unsure about food choices, see your dietitian or ask to be referred to one. Be proactive and take charge of your health.