Starchy carbohydrates are a wonderful thing – they make us feel happy, satisfied and energetic, and quite simply, we need carbohydrates in our diet as they provide a large proportion of the energy we need to move our bodies, and the fuel our organs need to function.
Plus, we all crave and enjoy them. This article exists to help you understand what carbohydrates are, which ones we should be eating, and to dispel all those myths that are giving carbs a bad name. If you know how carbohydrates both work within and affect our bodies, and just why we need them, you can have a much healthier attitude towards them and not buy into a faddy no-carb diet that I’m sure you’ll end up crashing out of.
What are carbohydrates?
It’s important to recognise that not all carbs are equal – this is where I think the confusion lies. Carbohydrates are either sugars, starch that will eventually be broken down into glucose (a form of sugar) in the gut, or dietary fibre, which we can’t break down. So, it’s the type and how we consume them that has most impact.
Let me break it down how I see it. Foods that are rich in carbs fall into four main categories:
- Simple sugars – white and brown sugar, honey, maple syrup
- White complex carbohydrates – bread, pasta, rice, flour, cereal
- Wholemeal and wholewheat complex carbohydrates – bread, pasta, rice, flour, cereal
- Vegetables and fruit – root veg in particular, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, swede, turnips, parsnips
What carbs should we be eating?
Simple carbs, such as white refined sugar or sugary processed foods and drinks, can be digested really quickly and are empty calories, giving us a blood sugar spike followed by an energy low that can leave us feeling sluggish. Eating more complex carbohydrates is key – they take longer to break down, are slow-releasing and give us a more sustained level of energy. Even better, choose wholemeal and wholewheat varieties, as these also contain more fibre and other nutrients that our bodies can use and take even longer to digest, helping to keep us feeling fuller for longer. I tend to trade up to wholemeal and wholewheat at least 7 times out of 10 – not only are you upping the nutritional value of what you’re eating, you’re also getting some really delicious flavours and textures and that drip-feed of energy is more useful.
While veg and fruit are often rich in carbs too, because they have such high nutrient values they go into our veg and fruit tally instead.
Why do carbs have a bad rep?
So when people are criticizing carbs, it’s generally our excessive sweet tooth that’s the problem. It’s a huge sweeping statement to say that carbs make us fat. Obviously, like anything, if we consume more than we need that excess is going to be stored as fat in the body, but if we eat the right type of carbs we should all be in a happy place. I’m sure you’re aware that many sugary foods also tend to be high in saturated fat, often don’t contain any other useful nutrients, and can have a very detrimental effect on our health if consumed too often.
Why do we need carbs?
If we don’t get enough carbohydrates and our bodies don’t get the energy they need, they have to get it from elsewhere and break down fat and protein instead. Protein is essential to the growth and repair of our bodies, so using it up for energy is inefficient and could eventually lead to muscle wastage. Eating complex carbohydrates is the best way to maintain our blood sugar levels, which helps us to concentrate and carry out our daily chores. So forget that fear of carbs and include them in your diet in the right way, every day.
Why I love carbs
Let’s just pause from the science for a minute to acknowledge what an integral part of the wonderful world of ingredients carbohydrates are. They are some of the most incredible flavour carriers on the planet – pasta paired with insane sauces, delicious breads and grains, rice in all its guises (stir-fries, risottos, paellas, with curries, stews, in soups), noodles, I could go on…
How much can we eat?
What I will say is, because these complex carbohydrates come in so many wonderful different shapes and forms it can be easy to double up and have too much without realising, so portion control and, frankly, restraint – AKA four roast potatoes, not nine – is the name of the game. Carbs should be about one-third of your balanced plate, and ultimately it’s what you pair those with that’ll get you on or off the right track. The average adult can have around 260g of carbohydrates a day, with up to 90g coming from total sugars.
Fibre is also classed as a carbohydrate, and is found mainly in plant-based foods. We should be aiming for about 30g of fibre each day – I’ve included it in the nutrition box on the recipe pages so you can start to get an idea of how much you get from different meals. We consume two different types:
- Insoluble fibre – largely found in wholemeal and wholewheat foods, we can’t digest this, so its important function is to help other food and waste pass through the gut, keeping our insides happy
- Soluble fibre – found in foods such as amazing oats, pulses, beans, veg and fruit. We can’t digest this but the good bugs in our colon can, which keeps them happy. Also, oats have a proven health claim to reduce blood cholesterol, so we love, love, love them
Everyday Super Food by Jamie Oliver is published by Penguin Random House ⓒ Jamie Oliver Enterprises Limited (2015 Everyday Super Food) Photographer: Jamie Oliver