This article is part of an occasional series taking a basic look at each of the major food groups. This week we look at the foods we know as carbohydrates & their effect on our health.
Carbohydrates are a group of foods often referred to as ‘starchy’. They are our main source of energy providing the fuel we need for physical activity & functioning organs, & they should make up about one third of our total diet.
Under this category come some of our most commonly consumed everyday foods: bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, cereals, vegetables, fruit & beans As you can see many of these foods come from grains of one sort or another. Grains can either be refined (having had the outer husk & inner germ removed) or unrefined (whole grain). Foods made from refined grains include white bread, rice & pasta. Whole meal bread pasta & brown rice come from the unrefined grain.
Foods made from the whole grain contain far more nutrients. The outer husk provides fibre & the germ provides protein, minerals & vitamins. They contain antioxidants & phytochemicals which give protection from cancer, diabetes & heart disease. Fibre - which is also found in fruit & vegetables – assists the digestive process & helps to lower blood cholesterol & control blood sugars. It also helps to regulate the bowel reducing the risk of irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, diabetes & cancer.
It is often indicated that someone trying to lose weight should avoid carbohydrates, but the reality is that what is important is the source of these carbs. It is the refined carbohydrates that come from highly processed foods such as white bread, white rice and other refined grains, pastries & fizzy drinks that contribute to weight gain, & promote diabetes & heart disease. These items are obviously best avoided.
A more recent way of looking at carbs is to use their glycaemic index - GI – to determine how quickly & strongly they increase blood sugar levels. Foods with a high GI are thought to increase the risk of various diseases & to promote weight gain, while foods with a low GI are slow releasing & help to reduce the risk of disease & control weight gain.