Carbohydrates are one of the three key macronutrients in our diet, along with protein and fat. These macronutrients are the nutrients that should provide the majority of the energy in our diet.
The name “carbohydrates” comes from their chemical composition because they’re made of three elements: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Carbs might have picked up a bad reputation over the years, but they are essential to well-being and normal functions of our bodies. They are a vital part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Why do we need carbs?
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our bodies, providing the fuel we need for our nervous system, organs and muscles to work.
Without energy from carbs, our body will start using protein and fat, however that is not recommended in the long term. The brain’s primary energy source is glucose, and while it can run on its back-up power source of ketones (which we can create from breaking down fats) this should only ever be a short-term solution. Carbohydrate-rich foods also provide other essential nutrients, including vitamins or minerals.
When we eat carbs, the body breaks them down into smaller molecules, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream by the smaller intestine. These molecules can then undergo further breakdown, and finally conversion into energy for all of our cells.
When this energy is not used, we can store excess carbohydrate in our muscles for later as glycogen. However, muscle capacity isn’t unlimited, so when all the glycogen deposits are full the excess carbohydrate will be stored as fat.
Long story short, when you eat more carbs and produce more energy than your body can use, the excess becomes fat. This is why carbs have such a bad reputation when it comes to weight gain- but remember, it’s energy in versus energy out, so carbs themselves are by no means a bad thing.
Indeed, not all carbs are equal…
Types of carbs
There are three main types of carbs, providing us with energy but some also contain other important nutrients for our health.
SugarsSugar naturally found in whole fruits and vegetables, and in dairy, is not something you need to avoid as this is considered “naturally-occurring” sugar. ‘Free sugar’ on the other hand, i.e. the type of sugar added to foods or released from cells such as in fruit juices, should only be consumed in moderation. Consuming too much free sugar can lead to weight gain from excess calorie consumption, and is associated with an increased risk of tooth decay.
Starch is found in foods like bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, and cereal. This type of carbohydrate provides a slow and steady release of energy. If possible, choose wholegrain products like wholegrain bread, brown rice or whole-wheat pasta, as these provide increased fibre- something we all should be aiming to eat more of!
Fibre is also a type of carbohydrate, but this provides much less energy per gram than sugars or starches. We can get our necessary fibre-intake from a eating a variety of sources such as vegetables, fruits, pulses or wholegrains. Learn more about fibre and how to up your intake from our dedicated article.
How many carbs do we need?
The general recommendation for a balanced diet is that a third of our food intake should comprise starchy carbohydrate foods, choosing wholegrain options wherever possible. So make better carb choices and choose wholegrains, vegetables, legumes and fruits that are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Craving some carbs? Why not make some delicious breaded cod fillet with Mediterranean rice for a hearty, warming meal? Or give this chicken pesto pasta recipe a go if you’re looking for a quick meal idea.