Carbohydrates are 1 of the 3 important macronutrients in our diet alongside fat and protein. The Australian Dietary Guidelines state that the diet should comprise of 45-65% carbohydrates.
This however does not suggest a diet consisting of 65% sugar, lollies etc, rather a diet in low glycemic index foods such as brown rice, which will not increase your risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes. Therefore, the quality of carbohydrate is paramount.
Carbohydrates are vital, as the body uses them to make glucose, which is the primary source of energy. A common misconception is that people believe only white foods contain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are also found in sweet potatoes, watermelon, corn, quinoa, dairy products and fruits to name just a few. Potatoes, while having a negative reputation, are an important source of potassium, fibre and vitamin C.
People often state carbohydrates are fattening, however complex carbohydrates such as whole grains are not fattening foods. Carbohydrates do have the ability to raise blood glucose levels and prompt your body to release insulin, however it is the type and quantity of carbohydrate intake that causes weight gain and increased blood glucose levels.
Carbohydrates with a higher fibre content such as brown rice or legumes raise blood sugar more steadily and therefore require less insulin to be released. Fibre also has an effect on weight loss as it slows down gastric emptying and keeps you fuller for longer, therefore reducing the risk of overeating. This proves that certain carbohydrates can be beneficial in weight loss.
Fibre also has many other physiological functions including; promoting bowel health, assisting in blood glucose levels, reducing plasma cholesterol and promoting gut health.
Fat cannot be used as an energy source for the brain, therefore the presence of carbohydrates in the diet is extremely important. Research has found that individuals on a low carbohydrate diet present more symptoms of depression and anger compared to those on a high carbohydrate diet.
A plausible reason for this is that carbohydrates assist in the production of serotonin in the brain, which is the neurotransmitter for happiness.
A low carbohydrate diet also means that the individual is missing out on a variety of important nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals that are essential in maintaining general wellbeing and reducing the risk of chronic disease.
While it is clear carbohydrates are extremely important, it needs to be clarified that a diet which primarily contains of carbohydrates may lead to weight gain – as excessive carbohydrate intake will result in fat not being used as an energy source and therefore being stored instead.
In conclusion there is not a one-fix-all scenario for carbohydrate intake, instead it is extremely personalised to the individual. However, it can be concluded that carbohydrates are not the enemy and are important for numerous reasons.