Over the last several years Carbohydrates have been cast as the villain of the food groups, with many fad diets recommending limiting and even eliminating this food group. However, carbohydrates are a vital to the body’s daily functioning. In fact, the brain needs a constant source of glucose, which is formed when carbohydrates are broken down.
Functions of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are organic compounds that are stored in muscles and in the liver and can be converted quickly when the body needs energy. The primary function of carbohydrates is to meet the body’s energy needs for breathing, maintaining body temperature, as well as the contraction and relaxation of the heart and other muscles. We also need carbohydrates for physical activity. Carbohydrates should provide about 50 to 65 percent of calories in a healthy, well-balanced diet. Each gram of carbohydrates yields 4 calories of energy. Carbohydrates in the form of whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables should make up the bulk of your carbohydrate calories.
Types of Carbohydrates
- Carbohydrates are classified according to the number of sugar units that make up their structure.
- Simple carbohydrates are sugars with a simple structure of one or two sugar units. These carbohydrates are found in starchy foods, fruit, honey, table sugar and milk. Simple carbohydrates do not provide vitamins, minerals or fiber. They can be considered empty calories because they have no nutritional value.
- Complex carbohydrates or starches consist of many sugar units. These include starch found in plant foods, grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables. It is also found in fiber, which cannot be digested and is vital to good dietary health. A diet rich in complex carbohydrates can help prevent many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and intestinal disorders. It can also help control weight gain. The majority of carbohydrates in your diet should come from these complex carbohydrates.
While all foods contain at least trace amounts of carbohydrates some foods groups are higher in carbohydrates than others. Grains, fruits, and vegetables are all rich sources of carbohydrate.
- Grain products come from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or other cereal grains. Some examples of food items that are in the grain group include bread, cereal, rice, oatmeal, tortillas and pasta. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that at least half of the grain foods you eat everyday come from whole-grain products.
- Fruit can be fresh, frozen, canned or dried. Be careful that your canned fruit isn’t in syrup, which is a simple carbohydrate and adds empty calories to an otherwise healthy food choice.
- Vegetables have the fewest calories of the carbohydrate rich food groups, with only 25 calories per serving. Try to eat a lot of dark green and orange vegetables, which are rich in nutrients and antioxidants and help immunity.
Carbohydrates can also be classified according to the glycemic index. This classification measures how fast and how high blood sugar rises after a carbohydrate is consumed. Foods that have a high glycemic index cause your blood sugar to spike quickly. These foods include white bread and pasta, and other simple carbohydrates. Whole grains, or complex carbohydrates, have a low glycemic index because they are digested more slowly resulting in a less drastic spike in blood sugar.
Diets with large amounts of high glycemic foods have been linked to an increased risk for diabetes and heart disease. Whereas low glycemic foods have been shown to help control type 2 diabetes.
Published On: September 20, 2006