Carbohydrates (or carbs for short) are an essential source of energy and vital nutrients for our body and brain, however, they often get a bad rep for contributing to weight gain. While it’s true that overconsumption can cause us to gain weight, the problem isn’t consuming carbs, it’s that many of us are eating the wrong type of carbs. Not all carbohydrates are equal – it’s the type and quantity that matters.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are macronutrients and include:
- Starches or complex carbohydrates – legumes, rice, wheat, grains, cereals
- Sugars – glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose and maltose
- Dietary fibre – wholegrain foods, vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts and seeds
Complex carbohydrates are digested in the small intestine and are broken down to become simple sugars such as glucose or fructose.
Why do our bodies need carbohydrates?
The primary role of dietary carbohydrates is providing energy to cells, particularly the brain that requires solely glucose for functioning.
When carbohydrates are digested in the body, the sugars produced are absorbed into the bloodstream and used for energy. Some sugar is stored by the body in places like the liver or in muscles as an energy supply for later use.
Carbohydrates that contain dietary fibre keep our digestive system healthy and help reduce cholesterol and regulate glucose levels. It also has been related to risk reduction for several chronic diseases.
What are the recommendations for carbohydrate intake?
No RDI for total carbohydrate is set in the Australian Dietary Guidelines due to insufficient data to develop an estimate of requirements. In relation to chronic disease prevention, 45-65% total energy intake from carbohydrate has been suggested as a healthy percentage.
What happens if we consume too much or too few carbohydrates?
A diet that is very low in carbohydrate may not provide enough energy for physical and mental wellbeing. Furthermore, carbohydrate foods supply our bodies with many nutrients, so a low carbohydrate diet may make it more difficult to meet nutritional needs.
As any carbohydrate not used for energy or in storage is converted to fat, overconsumption will contribute to increased body weight.