The new year brings resolutions, and the most common one is to lose weight. Many popular books and blogs advocate a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss. But are we doing the right thing by eliminating or limiting an entire food group? Let us try to understand some basics about carbohydrates.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are components of food that provide energy to your body. Every food we eat has three main nutrients that supply energy – carbohydrates, protein and fat. All carbohydrates we eat are digested and then broken down to sugar (glucose) by our liver. Our body uses this glucose for energy for our cells, tissues and organs. Carbohydrates are simple or complex, depending on how fast your body digests and absorbs the sugar. Carbohydrates are found in three food groups: starches and grains, fruit and dairy (milk and yogurt).
Why do we need carbs?
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There are two parts of our body, the brain and muscles, that need glucose to function. We cannot burn fat or protein as efficiently; therefore we need carbohydrates as our primary source of fuel. Simple carbohydrates like sugar are converted to glucose very fast because they do not have any other nutrients, and they can raise your blood sugar quickly. Complex carbohydrates such as beans and whole grains digest slowly so they do not raise blood sugar too fast. They also help keep us full for a longer time.
What are whole grains?
Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. Grains are important sources of many nutrients, including dietary fiber, several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate) and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium). Dietary fiber from whole grains helps reduce blood cholesterol levels and may lower risk of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Fiber is important for proper bowel function. It helps reduce constipation and improves digestion by feeding the healthy gut bacteria.
What about low-carb diets?
When you stop eating carbohydrates, your body has to convert protein and fat into energy. This creates more waste products in your body, and your kidneys have to work extra hard to get rid of these products. Therefore a low-carbohydrate diet is not good for your body in the long run. In fact, the latest research shows that low-carbohydrate diets are a higher risk for heart disease.
Be sure to include a variety of healthy carbohydrates such as beans and whole grains in your diet. Brown rice, oats, quinoa, millet, bulgur, barley and buckwheat are all easily available and can be used in a variety of ways. Remember to be mindful of portion sizes. Try to avoid or limit simple starches and sugars. Avoid processed foods and fast food. A diet rich in whole grains, beans, lean protein, fruits, nuts and seeds and plenty of non-starchy vegetables is the prescription to reverse chronic diseases and improve long-term health.
Parul Kharod is a clinical dietitian at WakeMed Cary Hospital. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org