Dr Tim Crowe
Food and diets are like fashion, coming in and out of vogue – and then back in again. Carbohydrates have been getting plenty of negative press lately, but with the latest research in gut health, they are coming back into style.
Carbohydrates are an important part of any balanced, varied diet. One of their key roles is to supply a source of energy to the body – they fuel cells all over your body, including your muscles to exercise and (in the form of glucose) your brain, to function.
You’ll find carbohydrates in foods like whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables, bread, beans, pasta, milk and yoghurt. You might also think of sugars as carbohydrate, as sugar is simply refined carbohydrate. Dietary fibres are also a type of carbohydrate, however, and no one can argue about the importance of fibre for our gut health than fibre.
What is a ‘good carb’?
Now you know not all carbohydrates are the same, and it’s important to have more ‘good carbs’ in our diet. So, what makes a ‘good carb’ choice? Foods that are minimally processed are good sources of the right kinds of dietary fibre and have a low glycaemic index tick all the boxes.
Here are some tips to get more of the good carbs in your diet:
- Go for grains:Whole grains are better choices than highly refined grains. Whole wheat or whole grain foods, quinoa, barley, oats and brown rice all make great choices.
- Fill-up on fibre-rich fruits and vegetables:Eat fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables in close to their natural state without added sugar
- Lead with legumes: Legumes such as kidney beans, peas and lentils are great sources of protein and a mix of fibre types and many important vitamins and minerals.
Good carbs, good health
Health problems linked to carbohydrate intake only starts when we rely too heavily on overly refined, highly processed carbohydrate foods. The 2011-12 Australian Health Survey found that while 45% of our daily energy came from carbohydrates, it was foods like cakes, muffins, confectionery and soft drinks that were over-represented. Many of the grain foods eaten were highly refined, low in fibre, and low in other key nutrients – in stark comparison to the recommended whole grain foods.
When it comes to good carbohydrate foods to choose, whole grains make it to the top of the list. There is a good reason why these foods are a feature of the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and those around the world.
A recent major scientific review looking at diet and chronic disease showed just how good whole grains are for us. Covering decades of research and hundreds of studies, the review found that plant foods, especially whole grain foods, were linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, overweight and obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Whole grain foods are more than a source of energy and dietary fibre. They are also an important source of many nutrients. A large study found in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that adults who ate the most whole grains also ate more healthy polyunsaturated fats. They also ate more of all the vitamins and minerals, with only the exception of vitamin B12 and sodium.
For gut, brain and body
Having a healthy gut benefits a lot more than just your bowel health. Our gut microbes are now recognised as key players in our mental and physical health. With a thriving mix of beneficial bacteria, our gut microbiome may keep us both happy and healthy, so long as we feed them well with a range of dietary fibre types.
The right kinds of carbohydrates can also help with body weight, largely due to the fibre in them. Dietary fibre helps you to feel full after a meal, and foods high in fibre are also high in other nutrients, but lower in kilojoules. A review of 15 studies found that eating three servings of fibre-rich wholegrains daily was linked favourably to a lower body weight and less belly fat.
Carbohydrates can help with memory too. A study from Tufts University found that when dieters eliminated carbohydrates from their meals, they performed poorly on memory-based tasks. Cognition skills returned to normal when they ate carbohydrates again.
Carbohydrates rank as the number one fuel for hard-working muscles in sport. Athletes on a low-carbohydrate diet can perform well in endurance events, but research studies show they get left behind the pack when they need to call on all their power for an intense burst.
What it all means
Choosing the right types of carbohydrates can do your overall health the world of good. Rather than shun them, embrace good quality carbs for the variety, taste and aroma they give add to your plate – and for the health benefits, they give to your body and mind.