Carbohydrates have had a really bad rap for quite some time now. The rise of toxic diet culture and fad diets, especially, have demonised it. But carbs happen to be one of the three macronutrients, the building blocks, that make up our food (the other two being protein and fat). Derived mostly from plant-based sources, they offer a range of nutritional benefits and are important in order to maintain a balanced diet. Although it varies according to factors such as age, sex, health conditions and lifestyle, on average, it is recommended for carbohydrates to account for 45 to 65 percent of your total calories.
Not all carbohydrates are the same. Available in the forms of sugar, starch or fibre, they can be simple or complex. Simple carbs are easily digestible, found naturally in fruits or as refined or processed sugars in junk food or packaged food. Complex carbohydrates take more time to be digested and are more nutrient-dense and healthy. These are found in things such as vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Why We Need Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for our body. Moreover, as opposed to protein or fat, which the body takes longer to break down, carbs comparatively provide instant energy. Fibre, a carbohydrate, is important for digestive health, regulating proper bowel movement. Carbs also help in sustaining and diversifying healthy gut bacteria, which are beneficial for maintaining immune function and brain health.
Carbs may also boost tryptophan and serotonin, brain chemicals that are associated with sleeping, thus helping to fall asleep faster. It is also important to note weight depends on the rate of calorie intake and expenditure, so it is misleading to think carbs are solely responsible.
Foods rich in healthy carbs also come with other vitamins and minerals necessary for our body. Healthy high carb diets may also cause you to live longer—author Dan Buettner, while researching areas with some of the longest living people, noted that their diets focused on plant-based, clean, high-carb components, and further research is gradually solidifying this idea.
Risks of Not Getting Enough Carbohydrates
Not having enough carbs in your diet could raise many health issues. The lack of enough fibre can interfere with the digestive process and cause constipation. As they are a major source of energy, cutting them out could make you feel lethargic and get headaches. According to a review of studies published in Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, restricting carbs in the long term could lead to health complications such as heart arrhythmias, osteoporosis, kidney damage and increased cancer risk.
Different low-carb diets have trended over the years, and while some were designed to benefit people with health conditions such as high diabetes or epilepsy, people often consider these diets as quick, temporary weight loss tools. This can be very damaging, as it creates a yo-yoing cycle—people are unable to control their carb cravings once their weight loss goal has been reached, which can cause rapid weight gain, which, again, makes them fall back to a low-carb diet for the purpose of weight loss, perpetuating an unhealthy cycle. So it is necessary to be mindful about your dietary habits and establish a healthy, sustainable relationship with food.
How To Maximise The Benefits of Carbs
According to nutritionist and dietitian Gayatri Chona, “the kind or quality of carbs consumed, the amount or portion, and the timing,” can make a big difference. And this is not about the digits on a weighing scale. Besides our weight, carbs play a role in our mood, energy levels and sleep. For instance, simple carbs like white bread with jam will energise you to sit through that dreaded meeting but not for long. A blood sugar crash is inevitable. Since the body absorbs simple carbs more easily, it causes a blood sugar spike, which the body can’t sustain. As the blood sugar crashes, you’ll experience hunger, brain-fog and lethargy. In the long run, this can lead to conditions like Type 2 diabetes.
Have complex carbs for sustained energy. “The reason why carbs have a bad reputation is because of the kind of heavily processed carbs available like burgers and pizzas,” says Chona. “Eating complex carbs like millets is important, as they are excellent sources of energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals.” Complex carbs take a longer time to be digested, so their glycemic index (the rate at which carbohydrates affect blood sugar level) is low, which means they do not cause as rapid a spike in blood sugar level as simple carbs, making them healthier.
Be mindful of carbohydrate intake. Chona adds, “Carbs come in multiple forms, from vegetables to baked goods to pasta, and what happens with excessively processed carbs (chips, biscuits etc) is that we don’t realise the amount of carbs we eat throughout the day. Even a bowl of pulses, which has 8 g of protein, has double the amount of carbs.” Maintaining a balance is key. If we are mindful of how much carbs we are eating in a day, then carbs can be great for us.
Eat the right quantity at the right time. “Carbs that we eat in the morning or lunchtime, when we break intermittent fasting in the first half of the day, will give us the energy we need throughout the day. On the other hand, the same amount of carbs taken post-sunset or late in the night will work differently, because at that point, our body doesn’t require that much energy, so the carbs will be converted to fat. So it’s not as simple as carbs being good or bad, it’s a mixture of these three things”, says Chona.
Healthy and Tasty Ways to Eat Complex Carbs
1. Millets are a great source of carbs, so add them to your meals to reap the benefits. Chona advises, “Have jowar roti or bajra paratha with a bowl of green vegetables. That’s the best way you can incorporate carbs into your diet, because vegetables will give you soluble fibre, while millets will give you insoluble fibre. Millets are also naturally gluten-free”.
2. Make a chilla (Indian pancake) with lots of vegetables. Chona suggests, “For dinner, it’s a good idea to replace your roti with a moong dal or besan chilla. This is something I often tell my clients. Rather than make something like a chickpea wrap which uses chickpeas into a maida roti, make a moong dal chilla and a paneer or tofu wrap. So your dal is working like a carb, and you are also getting higher protein from your meal.”
3. Have whole grain bread with eggs for a nutritious breakfast.