Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, starches, and dietary fibre which are found in things such as fruits, vegetables, cereals, and dairy products. Carbohydrates are also one of the body’s three main sources of energy, along with proteins and fats. These three energy sources are known as macronutrients and are necessary for the body to function optimally. Since the body cannot produce these macronutrients by itself, it needs to get them from your diet. The primary function of carbohydrates is to give the body energy and act as fuel for working muscles as well as for the central nervous system.
There are nutritious as well as less nutritious sources of carbohydrates. One way to decide whether a carbohydrate is good or bad is to look at its effect on your blood sugar. The glycaemic index, or GI, is a measurement of how much your blood sugar is affected when you eat a specific food. Every time we eat something, the amount of sugar in our blood increases, but if the GI is low, the effect on our blood sugar is reduced, meaning that a high GI gives a quick and powerful increase of blood sugar. Based on the GI value, foods are often also called either fast or slow carbohydrates.
Too many peaks and troughs in the blood sugar is neither very enjoyable nor very healthy so we should actually be aiming to keep our blood sugar as even and stable as possible. A powerful increase in blood sugar, which often happens if you eat something containing a lot of sugar or other fast carbohydrates (high GI), is always followed by a corresponding drop in blood sugar. This is noticeable by us becoming tired and low on energy and thereby craving something sweet or unhealthy to get the energy back.
There are several different diets that suggest totally cutting carbohydrates out of your diet in order to lose weight. However, we shouldn’t tar all carbohydrates with the same brush, since good health is about choosing the right sources for your carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are often associated with nutrient-poor foods, such as bread, pasta, and rice, for example. These can certainly be cut out of your diet as they rarely contribute anything other than a full belly and some quick energy. However, almost all foods from the plant kingdom contain carbohydrates – vegetables, pulses, whole grains, and fruits, for example. The carbohydrates in these foods come in a nutritious package since they’re combined with vitamins, minerals, and not least fibre. Since the fibres reduce the effect on blood sugar, these foods have a low GI, and the fibre also constitutes an important food for your good gut bacteria, which is important for your digestion and immune system, among other things.
By cutting out all the foods that contain carbohydrates, you risk not getting enough plant foods, which means you miss out on the important vitamins and nutrients, so your gut flora will suffer. Instead, make sure you choose carbohydrate sources with a low GI and a high nutritional value, which are as unprocessed as possible.
Most foods contain a mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, though the ratio of these can vary. According to the Swedish National Food Administration, around 45-60 percent of our energy intake comes from carbohydrates, 10-20 percent from proteins, and 25-40 percent from fats. Another simple guideline to follow is Stig Bengmark’s 80-10-10 rule, which goes as follows: 80 percent of your diet should come from plants, preferably raw (can be anything from cabbage to peppers, but be sure to vary them), 10 percent should be from protein-rich foods (ideally vegetables), and 10 percent should consist of vegetable oils from olives, avocados, and coconuts, for example.