Dr Eric Pugliesi
Updated: Jun 9, 2021
Throughout the decades we have been exposed to propaganda advising us to watch carbs and cut them off. The devilization of carbs has left us doubtful of their role in our lives. The truth, is that we need carbohydrates and
have to be smart when choosing them. So let’s start by understanding what they are.
When most people refer to carbohydrates, they are talking about foods that are starchy (like bread, pasta, potatoes and rice) or are sugary (like fruit, candy, cookies, and cake). In health, when we talk about carbohydrates we are talking about one of the three essential macronutrients (carbohydrates, lipids and proteins).
Carbs are subdivided in sugars, short chained and long chained. The differentiation is valuable as it will improve your knowledge on the content of the food you are consuming.
Sugars are part of the carbohydrate family and comprise things such as glucose, fructose (found in fruit), galactose (found in milk), sucrose (found in sugar cane / sugar beet), lactose (found in milk) among others. Sugars play a valuable role in our nutrition as they are a quick form of energy. Unfortunately, more and more we are being exposed to free sugars, which are added to foods by manufacturing industries. Free sugars are empty calories that are largely devoid of other nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. These are also detrimental to our health as they increase the risk of fat accumulation and contribute to the increased risk of childhood obesity.
Short-chained carbs can be subdivided into two groups 1) Maltodextrins, which are mainly derived from starch and used in the food industry as sweetners and fat substitutes to modify the texture of their products and 2) Non starch short-chained carbohydrates that are found in a variety of plants seeds, peas, beans and lentils.
Finally, long-chained carbohydrates can also be subdivided in starchy and non starchy types. Starch is the carb found in cereals, potatoes, legumes and bananas and consist only in long glucose chains. Non starch carbs are those found in plants cell walls and are the main component of dietary fibre.
In summary, carbs come from a range of foods - these can be nutrient rich whole foods - but also refined grains and added sugars. For this reason, you should prefer carbohydrates straight out of their natural packaging rather than their counterpart - highly processed or refined boxed / tinned versions.
Your approach with carbs should be inclusive rather than restrictive. It has been proven that low carb diets don’t help you lose weight in the long term as they are usually effective in the first 6 months like any other restrictive diet. The benefit fades off in the long term. To get fat burning changes, your carb intake should be only 20-50 grams per day… this is obviously hard to achieve and runs the risk of limiting your intake of important nutrients.
For this reason a better approach is to enjoy your carbs and rather than focusing on purely this subgroup you eat a reasonable amount of whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats (preferably vegetable origin) and healthy protein (nut, legumes, eggs, seafood and poultry). Also, limit your intake of refined grains and added sugars. Finally, ration your intake of red and processed meat, salt, saturated fats and trans fats.
The following chart is a guide for a better carbohydrate selection:
Good carbs vs. bad carbs
Here are some ways to switch bad carbs for good ones.
Instead of this...
Whole grains like brown rice/black rice, barley, quinoa, buckwheat, or wheat berries
Pasta made from refined flour
Whole-grain pasta; whole-wheat couscous; legume pasta
Cakes, cookies, pies, and other low-nutrient sweets
Fruit (fresh, frozen, or dried)
Plain yogurt with fruit (fresh, frozen)
Sugary breakfast cereals
Oatmeal, cooked with milk or soy milk and grated apples or chopped dates. Amaranth or quinoa based muesli
Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, fruit drinks, punches, iced tea, lemonade)
Water; low-fat milk; unsweetened or lightly sweetened tea or coffee; seltzer with a splash of 100% fruit juice
Small sweet potato baked with skin or Carisma potatoes
Puréed frozen banana with cocoa powder