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Why simple carbohydrates are not good enough
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Why simple carbohydrates are not good enough

Not all carbohydrates are unhealthy - some are a necessity. Learn the benefits of carbs for your health and how to pick them right.
Photos of foods with complex carbohydrates
Representational image | Shutterstock

Though carbohydrates are the primary source of energy, they are one of the most misunderstood macronutrients as bad nutrients that get eliminated from the diet wheel. As one of the necessary nutrients, they break down into glucose as fuel.

The USA’s Dietary Guidelines of Americans 2020-2025 recommends consuming calories from macronutrients in the ranges of 45-65% from carbohydrates, 10-35% from proteins, and 20-35% from fats. India’s National Institute of Nutrition guidelines also align.

When we intake carbs it gets broken down and converted first into glucose. This glucose then gets stored in muscles as glycogen for us to perform any physical activity. If all the glycogen is not used from our muscles, then it gets converted to fats.

Why are carbs always misunderstood?

According to nutritionist and obesity consultant Dr Kiran Rukadikar, Kolhapur, Maharashtra, people  often blame carbs for increases in weight or sugar levels, but fail to understand that this is due to simple refined carbs and not complex carbohydrates.

The overconsumption of various carbs, from complex carbs like digestible polysaccharides (starch) to refined sugars, which collectively mediate harmful effects on our health is referred to as “carbo-toxicity.” Refined carbs are processed and harmful if its intake is not in the correct proportions. Unrefined carbs are unprocessed or minimally processed, in raw form and it is a better option.

Carbotoxicity is a primary driver of obesity, diabetes and associated comorbidities, which makes it important to avoid the excessive ingestion of refined carbs and added sugar. “The quantity and the quality of carbohydrates is important,” says Bengaluru-based Nutrition and Wellness consultant, Sheela Krishnaswamy.

Dr Rukadikar says, “It varies from individual to individual depending on their lifestyle, sleep schedule, health status. But all the meals should include a little amount of carbs to balance the diet.”

Simple carbs

Simple carbohydrates, also known as simple sugars, have shorter molecular chains (smaller the chain, easier to digest the food) and are more quickly absorbed than complex carbs which causes a surge in blood glucose. It gives the body a short-lasting source of energy. Some simple carbs occur naturally and are important for a well-balanced diet such as fruits and vegetables which is full of other micronutrients and dietary fibres that help slow the breakdown of sugar.

However, some simple carbs might also be found in foods that are not particularly nutritious. Processed foods and foods with added sugar like soft drinks, bread and refined grains often include simple carbs that should be avoided. The source of simple carbs that you want to limit is added sugar, which is simple to identify on nutrition labels.

Complex carbs

Compared to simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates have longer chains of sugar molecules, which are converted by the body into glucose. Because complex carbohydrates’ chains are longer than those of simple carbs, they take longer to digest and offer the body longer-lasting energy. Complex carbs are more efficient in giving the body energy, which is the main purpose of carbohydrates.

In processed foods with little nutritional value, such as refined white flour and white polished rice without the germ and the bran (any kernel’s bran is its outer layer, and its germ is its interior, where a new plant can develop), complex carbohydrates are also present, but they tend to work like simple carbohydrates. However, more nutrient-dense diets (a diet that consists of adequate amounts of all the macro and micronutrients along with the vitamins and minerals. Some nutrient-dense food can be spinach, egg yolk, garlic) contain a variety of additional complex carbs.

Carbohydrates and diabetics

“Diabetics should have carbohydrates, but the amount of carbohydrate intake differs for every diabetic, and it depends on factors such as their food intake capacity, sugar levels, and medications,” says Krishnaswamy. A diabetic person is advised to take carbohydrates not more than 30 per cent of total all-day calorie consumption.

But it is necessary for an individual to discuss the intake of carbohydrates with their doctor or nutritionist as it varies from person to person depending on the blood sugar level. The important thing to note here is that complex carbohydrates with high fibre content like peas, lentils, grains, cabbage, okra and the like should be in abundance in one’s plate.

According to a meta-analysis study done by a group of researchers published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, multiple approaches for developing and delivering a low-carbohydrate diet intervention for Type 2 Diabetes management are safe and effective.

Krishnaswamy says that it is often misconstrued that diabetics cannot take carbohydrates, because they break down into glucose. But rather than foregoing carbs altogether, including complex carbs in the diet can be key to managing diabetes.

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