Carbohydrates: Friend or Foe?
We know that a healthy, balanced diet is the key to a healthy body, but it can be tough knowing exactly which foods are the healthiest for us, with the constant barrage of new studies and research branding certain foods as either hero or villain when it comes to our health.
One food group that has been given a pretty bad rep over the past few years is carbohydrates. The common perception now is that the fewer carbs we eat the better, with some of us avoiding carbs altogether… but is this really a healthy option for our bodies? Well, frankly, no.
Of course, we know that starchy, refined carbs aren’t great for us – and we do eat far too much of them, so cutting back is a definitely a good thing. But cutting carbs out altogether? Carbs can help us feel full and provide us with a lot of healthy nutrients and essential fibre – we just need to make sure we are eating the right sort. Vegetables are a great source, and another particular group that is getting seriously neglected is wholegrains.
A study from the British Journal of Nutrition found that 80% of us are simply not eating a healthy level of wholegrains – and one in five may not be eating any at all! Not that I’m surprised, with so many people demonising all carbs, or, when they do indulge, choosing the more popular, starchy white carbs.
So what’s the difference between the two, and why does it matter?
Grains are made up of an inedible, protective husk and a kernel which has three layers – bran, germ and endosperm. Wholegrains contain all three parts of the kernel – and so keep the maximum nutrients. Processing these grains to make refined carbohydrates means removing the bran and the germ, which contain a whole host of antioxidants, B vitamins, protein, minerals, healthy fats and fibre, leaving only the endosperm.
Refining means that about 25% of protein is lost, along with at least seventeen key nutrients! It is possible to add back some vitamins and minerals to enrich these refined grains. But why not stick to the unadulterated and healthier wholegrain in the first place?!
What’s more, products made from refined white carbs are more likely to contain higher levels of fat and sugar, but, because they’re refined, they’re not as filling, meaning we eat larger portions in order to feel full. Which doesn’t help our weight-loss attempts and explains why so many of us will feel bloated, or sluggish after eating a huge bowl of white pasta or rice. In contrast, wholegrains are higher in fibre -meaning we will feel fuller for longer, with smaller amounts.
Importantly, though, wholegrains have been linked to all kinds of health benefits, including lower body weight, BMI and cholesterol levels, as well as reduced risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers too. What’s not to like?!
How much should you be eating?
The minimum recommended is 48g. This equates to around…
- 3 slices of wholemeal bread or
- A bowl of porridge or wholegrain breakfast cereal and a slice of wholemeal toast or
- A portion of whole grain rice/pasta/quinoa or other whole grains
Swapping refined carbs for wholegrain ones is a great place to start and try to hit the 48g minimum if you can. Watch out though – some manufacturers try to dupe us into thinking a product is healthier than it is. For example, the breads that are just coloured brown to make them look healthier, and seeded and malted loaves made from white flour with small amounts of bran added in afterwards.
This article was written by Dr Sally Norton, an NHS weight loss consultant surgeon and founder of www.vavistalife.com.