Carbohydrates: Love ‘em or Hate ‘em?

by The Health Sciences Academy — Get free science updates here.

In part 1 of this InstaHealth series, you learned that all nutrition labels list these three macronutrients:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Fats

In this post, you’ll learn about the first of these: Carbohydrates (often just called “carbs”).

Take a look at the Nutrition Label from the UK (on the right). Can you spot where the carbohydrates are listed?

Carbohydrates are mainly found in starchy foods (like grains and potatoes), legumes, fruits, milk, and yogurt.

But vegetables, nuts and seeds also contain carbohydrates.

Have a look at the carbohydrate content of cherry tomatoes versus that of potatoes.

A potato has 4 times the amount of carbohydrates as a tomato (when comparing 100 grams of each).

But did you know that there are different types of carbohydrates?

Can you spot them on this US food label on the right?

They are:

  • Fibre in the UK (Dietary Fiber in the US)
  • Sugars

The label also lists Total Carbohydrates (the total number of carbs).

Let´s go back to our potato vs tomato comparison, but now adding in the fibre and sugar content:

Per 100 grams, the potato has more fibre, but the tomato has more sugar.

So why do we even need carbohydrates? They must be important if they are on the nutrition label, right?

Indeed, carbohydrates are used for a number of bodily functions that you can see below:

Since fibre appears before sugar on the food label, let’s examine it first.

Have you ever wondered why people are going for whole wheat bread rather than plain white bread? Part of the reason lies in the fibre content:
That whole wheat bread has more fibre! And, as you saw above, fibre has many benefits in the body.

But, did you know that not all fibre is the same? In fact, there are two kinds: soluble and insoluble fibre.

Soluble fibre is heart-friendly and helps to lower cholesterol levels. Insoluble fibre is beneficial for the gut and keeping things moving down below.

The good news is that foods that contain fibre typically contain a portion of both.

We should strive to eat at least 30 grams of fibre a day.

While the goal is to eat more fibre, we generally want to eat less sugar. Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Let’s have a look at the sugar content of some common foods and drinks:

Notice that a can of sugar-sweetened cola has 14 times more sugar than 10 stalks of asparagus!

When it comes to carbohydrate food labelling, there are two major differences between the UK and US labels:

In the UK, fibre is not included in the total carbohydrate count, whereas in the US it is. So, to match a UK label to a US one, you’d need to add the “fibre” statistic onto the “carbohydrate” one.

Additionally, this US label tells us how many of the sugars in the food are added sugars: the ones that we want to minimise in our diet.

Have you heard of “simple” and “complex” carbohydrates? This used to be a common way to divide up carbs to help us understand “good” vs “bad”. Now we know this is too simple, and that there is a big grey area between “good” and “bad”.

So, doctors and scientists came up with something called the “glycaemic index”.

The glycaemic index refers to the ability of a carbohydrate to raise blood glucose levels.

High glycaemic foods result in a quick spike in blood glucose and insulin, while low glycaemic foods have a slower, smaller effect.

Have a look below at the glycaemic index (GI) of some foods:

A diet consisting of primarily low GI foods (less than a value of 55) and minimising high GI foods (a value above 70), might help to manage food cravings, promote a healthy weight, and reduce risk for diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

This doesn’t mean that all high GI foods are unhealthy though! Watermelon and parsnips, for example, are high GI foods, but can still provide health benefits.

And just because something is low GI doesn’t automatically make it a healthy staple. Chocolate is actually low GI (because of its high fat content), but that doesn’t mean you should be eating loads of it.

A top tip for consuming foods that are moderate to high GI is to consume them as part of a balanced meal with proteins and healthy fats. This way, the GI of the food is reduced by the other components of your meal.

Want to learn if cutting carbs can actually suppress appetite and help us lose weight – or not? Then check out this short training!

Related Trainings:
Carb and Sugar Cravings
Weight Loss Science
Low-Carb Dieting and Appetite

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