There is a lot of talk these days about carbohydrates. Here we will analyse what exactly is a carbohydrate and what are healthy carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are molecules that have carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Sugars and starches are carbohydrates and their main role is to provide energy. The body transforms them into glucose (available energy) or fat (stored energy). Fibre is also a carbohydrate and is vital for a healthy digestive system. It does not provide direct energy, however, it feeds bacteria in the digestive system which produce fatty acids that can be used as energy by some cells. There are many different sources of carbohydrates, but we should be careful to recognise the unhealthy and healthy carbohydrates.
There are whole carbs and refined carbs: healthy carbohydrates and unhealthy carbohydrates. Whole carbs are unrefined, natural, and high in fibre. Refined carbs are those which have been processed and lost their natural fiber. They usually lack essential nutrients and are classed as empty calories. We should aim to consume the good carbohydrates which are high in nutrients and fibre.
How healthy your carbs are is also dependent on their chemical structure. Some carbs are simple and some are complex. Simple carbs contain only one or two different sugars, whereas complex carbs contain three or four. Simple carbs are absorbed and digested quicker than complex carbs and these rapid, short-lived energy boosts can lead to sugar highs and spikes in blood sugar levels. Complex carbs on the other hand provide more sustained energy and are therefore much better for our bodies.
Carbohydrates are classed as a macronutrient. Macronutrients are those which the body does not produce itself and must be sourced from diet for healthy body functioning. There are two other macronutrients: protein and fats. Carbohydrates fuel our muscles and central nervous system and enable fat metabolism. Our bodies can store a certain amount of the glucose if it is not required for energy, but once the storage limits are reached, extra carbohydrates will be stored as fat. If energy is required and the body has insufficient carbohydrate intake or stores, it will use protein to source the energy. This is not ideal as protein is required by our muscles and when protein is used as fuel it can put stress on the kidneys.
So, healthy carbohydrates are natural and complex. You can best source these by eating a varied diet of unprocessed/whole fruit and vegetables, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts), seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, chia), and grains (oats, quinoa, wheat). Healthy high carb foods we can grow in UK gardens and allotments include quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beetroots, sweet corn, squash, parsnips, turnips, blueberries, pears, and apples. Low carb foods we can grow include broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, spinach, asparagus, courgette, cauliflower, mushrooms, cucumber, lettuce, peppers, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries.