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Breaking Down Carbohydrates: To Eat or Not to Eat | Pranoti Pawar

Breaking Down Carbohydrates: To Eat or Not to Eat

The good, bad and ugly of the misunderstood carbs!

Have you ever wondered how our bodies obtain the energy needed to accomplish everyday tasks, no matter how simple or difficult? The answer lies in a fundamental nutrient that plays a crucial role in our lives: carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates have got a bad rap in recent times – but before we eliminate such a crucial ingredient from our diet, it is crucial to know its role in a balanced diet.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates (also called carbs) are one of the three macronutrients (nutrients required in large amounts by the body) along with protein and fats and are made up of smaller sugar units. They occur in many forms such as sugars, starches and fibres and are present in a variety of foods like cereals or grains (wheat, ragi, bajra, jowar, rice, etc.), fruits (papaya, mango, apple, etc.) and vegetables (potato, carrot, beetroot, etc.). They are the body’s primary source of energy and the preferred source of energy for the brain.

Fun Fact: The brain accounts for 2% of a person’s body weight, but consumes 20% of the energy derived from carbohydrates.

How does the body digest carbohydrates?

The food you eat enters the digestive system, which breaks down the carbs from the food into glucose. Glucose is absorbed by the blood, converted into energy and used by various body parts as fuel. Any excess glucose not immediately required by the body is stored as glycogen (a stored form of glucose) in the liver and muscles. This glycogen can be broken down into glucose whenever the body needs energy, such as during exercise or while fasting. If there is still excess glucose circulating in the blood, it is converted into fat resulting in weight gain.

Fun Fact: The digestion of carbs begins from the mouth – not from the stomach.

Types and sources

Carbohydrates are of two main types – simple and complex – depending on how quickly they are digested and absorbed. Simple carbohydrates are made up of just one or two sugar units and hence can be very easily digested and converted to glucose. Examples of simple carbs are table/refined sugar, jaggery, honey, milk, vegetables, and fruits (especially sweet ones and those eaten without skin).

Complex carbs are made up of many sugar units and hence take more time to be digested and absorbed into the body. These include foods that contain fibre like unrefined, whole grains such as khapli wheat, jowar, bajra, steel-cut oats, etc.; legumes like whole moong, rajma, chawli, etc.; and fruits like guava, apple, pear, etc. As fibre is not easily broken down by the body, it is not easily converted to glucose, but instead provides the body with important nutrients and keeps us feeling full for a long time after eating.

Fun Fact: Animal foods like meat, fish, egg and dairy products do not contain fibre.

Are all carbohydrates equal?

The one-word answer to this question is NO.

Simple carbohydrates, especially the ones that come from refined sugar, honey, jaggery, etc., when eaten give the body an instant burst of energy (like when you eat a dessert). However, they majorly provide only calories, but lack vitamins, fibre and minerals, and hence excessive intake can lead to weight gain and increased risk for Type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease.

But not all simple carbs are alike. Foods like fruits and milk also contain naturally occurring sugars along with vitamins, minerals and fibre that our bodies need and hence should be included in our daily diet in moderate amounts. Complex carbohydrates like vegetables, sprouts, millets, etc., unlike simple carbs, have a lot more fibre causing them to release glucose into the bloodstream more slowly, thus making them a healthier and smarter choice for good health and disease prevention.

Today, a lot of whole cereals and grains are refined and processed to create products like white rice, maida, etc., which are deficient in fibre and nutrients like B-complex vitamins. People are drawn to such foods because they can be made into highly palatable products, and most importantly are very convenient and readily available. These foods are often high in sugar, unhealthy fats and salt, which can make them almost addictive and lead to overconsumption, for example: biscuits, bread, cakes, etc. Consumption of such processed and refined foods is one of the key reasons for the increase in the incidence of lifestyle conditions like obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, PCOD (polycystic ovarian disease), high cholesterol and heart disease.

Fun Fact: Brown rice takes longer to cook as compared to polished white rice because it contains more fibre.

Are low carbohydrate diets healthy and safe?

Low carbohydrate diets are very popular today, especially if you want to lose weight, control your blood sugar, or reduce your cholesterol levels. But is it safe to not eat carbohydrates at all? How will our body get energy if we don’t eat carbohydrates or eat very little of them? While carbohydrates play an important role in providing energy to our body, it is important to strike a balance in our dietary choices.

Traditionally, our dietary habits rely heavily on cereals and grains such as chapati, rice, etc., while neglecting protein-rich foods such as sprouts, milk, curd, paneer, nuts, eggs, dals, fish and chicken, as well as high-fibre foods like vegetables and salads.

While some people can benefit from eating low carbohydrate diets, it is vital to include moderate amounts of healthy, complex, fibre-rich foods like fruits with skin, vegetables, and whole, unrefined grains and pulses in the diet to ensure they get their daily requirements of energy and other nutrients. Having a diet without carbohydrates may result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as difficulties in sustaining such a diet over time, which is why zero carbohydrate diets are not recommended. It is advisable to consult a qualified dietitian to get a personalised diet plan that is not only tailored to your needs, medical requirements and preferences but is also nutritionally balanced and safe.

Tips to consume carbs in a balanced manner

Here are 5 tips to follow when it comes to carbohydrates:

  1. Limit consumption of foods high in simple carbohydrates that provide only calories but very little nutrition.
  2. Include more complex carbohydrates by eating foods rich in fibre.
  3. Eat moderate quantities of whole grains in place of polished white rice, maida and instant oats.
  4. Combining a carbohydrate-rich food with a protein-rich one is the best way to ensure you are getting all the necessary nutrients – for example, khichadi made with brown rice, moong dal with skin and veggies, porridge made with steel-cut oats, milk and fruits, upma made with broken wheat (dalia), sprouts and veggies, etc.
  5. Choose whole fruits instead of juices to get the benefits of the fibre in the fruits, which is otherwise discarded while making juice.

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet and complex forms should be incorporated in moderation into your daily eating plan. You will achieve your daily nutritional requirements by following this approach, as well as establishing healthy dietary habits that last for a lifetime. Consulting a registered dietitian or healthcare professional is recommended for the right approach.

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Pranoti Pawar

The author is a clinical dietitian.

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