Carbohydrates have been given a bad rep in recent years so we decided to ask one of our nutritionist, Gemma Shorter BSc MSc ANutr, to explain the difference between refined and unrefined carbs, and what impact they may have on our health.
There is a lot of confusion around the role of carbohydrates in the diet. Many of us restrict our intake because we believe they are bad and make us put on weight. However, carbohydrates can be a very valuable part of a healthy, balanced diet. What’s more important is the type, quality and quantity of carbohydrate we are eating.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates is an umbrella term used to describe a broad category. They are made up of three components: sugar, starch and fibre. Sugars are broken down easily by the body and are therefore referred to as simple carbohydrates. They are found naturally in fruit, vegetables, honey and milk, but are consumed mostly in the form of table sugar when they are added to processed foods like cakes, sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks. Starch and fibre take longer to be broken down and are referred to as complex carbohydrates. Starch is found in potatoes, rice, bread and pasta and fibre is found mainly in fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains, nuts and seeds.
Refined Carbs, What are they?
Carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, and bread are referred to as refined when they have been processed to remove the germ and bran. This removes most of the foods nutritional value including the fibre, B vitamins, calcium, and iron content. Other foods containing refined carbohydrates include pizza dough, pastries, white flour, many breakfast cereals, cakes and desserts.
Refined Carbs, Why are they bad for our health?
Unfortunately, refined carbohydrates make up a large percentage of our intake. When a food has been stripped of its fibre content, it is broken down by the body much quicker. This causes a rapid spike in blood glucose levels, similar to that of simple sugars. These foods are referred to as having a high glycaemic index (a scale that measures how quickly a food raises blood glucose levels).
When a food raises blood glucose levels quickly, it causes insulin to be released, which signals the body to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. This can result in a sudden crash in blood glucose levels, which signals the body to release the hunger hormone ghrelin. This can cause us to overeat and put on weight, increasing our risk of obesity.
Foods with a high glycaemic index have also been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is a serious condition where the insulin your pancreas makes can’t work properly, or your pancreas can’t make enough insulin. If not managed effectively, over time, high blood glucose levels can damage the heart, eyes, feet, and kidneys.
Refined carbohydrates can also cause triglycerides levels to rise. Triglycerides are a type of fat found within the body. When we eat too much fat or sugar, the body converts any calories it doesn’t need into triglycerides and stores it as fat. Having high levels of triglycerides in the body can increase the risk of developing heart disease.
A diet high in refined and processed foods can affect our gut microbiome. These foods are the preferred food source of many pathogenic bacteria in the gut. Eating too many of these foods can alter the balance of bacteria and reduce the percentage of beneficial bacteria that look after our digestive system.
Blood glucose spikes can also lead to mood swings and there is some evidence to suggest a link between foods with a high glycaemic index and depression, however, this link has not yet been confirmed.
So, What types of carbohydrates should we be eating?
Refined carbohydrates are found in many of our favourite foods and we shouldn’t have to give up the foods we love. However, eating a balanced diet means you can still enjoy some refined carbohydrates, alongside plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and a moderate amount of dairy, meat, and fish.
Whole grains are the main source of a range of nutrients in the diet and should make up around a third of your plate. They provide a good source of energy and contain plenty of gut-friendly fibre.
In the UK, we currently do not eat enough fibre, at only 18g a day compared to the recommended 30g. Fibre keeps our digestive system working properly and helps us to feel full. It can also help to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Refined carbohydrates can sometimes be beneficial, for example when athletes need a quick burst of energy. However, for most of us, we need to limit our intake of refined and processed carbohydrates and eat plenty of starchy and complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, potatoes, fruit, and vegetables. Making simple swaps is often the easiest way to improve your diet and eat healthier.
Lo-Dough makes a great alternative to white bread or pastry, as it’s incredibly low in carbohydrates but an excellent source of fibre - in fact, it has over 3 to 4 times more than a slice of wholemeal bread making it a brilliant supplement to get extra fibre into your diet.