Don't be afraid of carbs
Carbohydrates are necessary and picking the right ones will help you live healthier
Carbohydrates often get a bad rap. They are singled out as the culprit behind weight gain and some fad diets cut it out almost entirely.
But not all carbs are bad for you. Some contain many health benefits, and your body needs carbs to function properly.
Picking the right carbs is key to better health and weight loss.
1. Carbs are everywhere
Most carbohydrates can be found in plant-based foods, such as grains. Processed foods also contain carbs, such as starch or added sugar.
Sugar is the simplest form of carbs found in fruits and vegetables, milk and milk products. You may find it in the form of fructose (fruit sugar), sucrose (table sugar) or lactose (milk sugar) in ingredients lists.
Starch is a complex carb comprising multiple sugar units bonded together. It is found in grains, vegetables and beans.
Fibre is another complex carb that occurs in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.
2. Carbs are necessary
Carbs contain B vitamins, iron, calcium and fibre, all of which are necessary for regular bodily function, down to the cellular level. Vitamin B12, in particular, helps keep the body's nerve and blood cells in top condition.
They also influence the central nervous system and fuel our muscles. They get converted into glucose in our bloodstream, providing us with energy.
3. Carbs don't make you fat
It is your sedentary lifestyle that does. Too much input and not enough output is what causes us to pack on the pounds.
Unused carbs get converted into fatty acids and stored in the body as fat. Carbs enable fat metabolism by preventing the body from using protein as an energy source, thereby allowing the amino acids in protein to build fat-burning muscles.
The US National Institutes of Health recommends carbs should make up 45 per cent to 65 per cent of daily calorie intake.
4. Good carbs vs bad carbs
The term "good carbs" refers to whole foods that contain vitamins and minerals, fibre, as well as protective plant compounds. These carbs are digested more slowly, and this slower conversion into glucose means your insulin levels don't see drastic fluctuations and your body has a steadier stream of energy.
"Bad carbs" contain an excessive amount of sugar. Refined grains such as white rice, white bread, sugar, pasta and more are deemed "bad" as they don't have many - if any - nutrients at all. They get converted into glucose quickly, leading to unhealthy fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can result in Type 2 diabetes.
5. Carbs are brain food
Carbs support brain function and influence our mood and memory. Not only do they boost cognition, they also provide the blood-glucose your brain needs to perform normally.
Hypoglycemia is an extreme case when the concentration of blood glucose falls and the brain is starved of fuel, causing light-headedness, confusion, slurred speech and even death.
6. Carbs can help you live longer
Studies have shown a high-carb diet may protect us from age-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease. People in the world's Blue Zones (such as Okinawa in Japan) tend to have a longer life expectancy, and that has been attributed to their carb-heavy diet - focusing on grains and starchy vegetables - and way of life.
7. Carbs can boost immunity
Eating carbs, especially before working out, reduces your chances of catching a bug or falling sick because it boosts your cytokine levels.
Cytokines are molecules that regulate our immune system, protecting our body against the stress induced by physical activity and exertion. So have some slow-burning carbs like a bowl of oats a couple of hours before you hit the gym.
8. There is no right time to eat carbs
Some claim that eating carbs later in the day causes the body to store more fat, but there is no proof of that. There is no ideal time to eat carbs, although eating it during the day means more hours to expend it. Still, your body burns fuel even when you are sleeping, so the carbs you eat at dinner are meant to tide you through the night till breakfast.
9. Low-carb is not no-carb
Even a stalk of celery contains 2g of carbs, and a 200ml glass of milk contains 10g of carbs.
Most foods contain at least a trace amount of carbs, and while you might think you're saving your waistline with a "zero carb" diet, you are probably depriving your body of the energy and nutrients it needs.
Even low-carb diets such as Atkins or keto would still involve fruits and vegetables, and perhaps small amounts of healthy starches such as oats.
This article was first published in Shape (www.shape.com.sg).