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Which carbohydrates should we consume and which ones should not (and when)

The carbohydrates (also called carbohydrates, carbohydrates, or carbohydrates) swith nutrients found in food, along with the other two macronutrients: proteins and fats (lipids).

They represent a fundamental part of the human diet.

To get us started, some of the foods rich in carbohydrates are cereals and derivatives (bread, pasta, rice), tubers (potatoes), legumes, fruit and vegetables, milk and other sugars such as honey or white sugar.

Are they necessary in our diet?

The main function of carbohydrates is energetic. They supply energy to all the organs of the body, from the brain itself to the muscles. They function as a quick and easy fuel for the human body to obtain.

High carbohydrate foodsCarbohydrates are a source of energy for the body. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the other hand, they perform other structural functions in the body and regulate the levels of blood sugar. They are also involved in reducing fatigue and muscle recovery after physical activity.

They also participate in the synthesis of genetic material (DNA, RNA), help in the metabolism of proteins and fat and promote the creation of muscle tissues, among other functions. In other words, carbohydrates are to our body what gasoline is to the car.

Are all carbohydrates the same?

Depending on the structure of carbohydrates, we find two types: carbohydrates complex or slowly absorbed (they are starches and fiber) and simple or fast absorbing, also called free or simple sugars (glucose, fructose and lactose).

Surely you have ever read the label of a food product and have come across strange names such as dextrose, corn syrup, syrup, starch, maltose… Faced with so much information, you may have wondered: What is all that?

SugarSugarThe sugar that comes in food is not the same as added sugar. (Photo: Getty Images)

The truth is that there are many different types of sugar and the chemical structure of each of them determines whether a specific type of sugar is healthy or not.

That is, sugar can be found in an intrinsic way in food (as it happens with fruit and cereals), it can be released in the processing (juice) or be added by the food industry or the consumer (industrial pastries, sugary yogurt) .

Must prioritize those that are intrinsically found in the food because the rest of the nutrients that make up this product make the body use the nutrient in an optimal way for human health.

How much less sugar is better?

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that you should consume less than 10% of your daily energy intake (kilocalories) of simple sugars per day. Furthermore, according to the WHO, “a reduction below 5% in total caloric intake would produce additional health benefits.”

Woman in supermarketWoman in supermarketIt is important to read the labels to know what the products we consume contain. (Photo: Getty Images)

Taking into account that the diet of a standard adult is approximately 2,000 kilocalories, one should consume less than 25 grams a day of free sugars. But these are only part of carbohydrates, so we should stop to think about how to manage the intake of the other types.

However, there are many diets that restrict or eliminate carbohydrates. Consumers know it as “Carbophobia.” Surely you have ever heard the expression: “Carbs at night make you fat.”

The truth is that you don’t have to be afraid of carbohydrates. Supermarket shelves are increasingly full of products that indicate “O% added sugars” or “No added sugar.”

How to identify healthy sugars

Does this mean they are healthier? In these cases, the food or product must be valued. If it is a food that has had the sugar removed to make a healthier version but, in exchange, other poor quality additives have been added, it is best to discard it from the shopping cart.

Some examples are maltitol, xylitol, or erythritol. On the contrary, if it does not have added sugars or sweeteners on the label, we could consider it a healthy food product.

Woman adding sweetener to coffee.Woman adding sweetener to coffee.Non-nutritive sweeteners can be potential food addiction triggers. (Photo: Getty Images)

It is also necessary to refer to sweeteners (also called polyalcohols), which are food additives, substances derived from the carbohydrates themselves, with a sweet taste and very low caloric intake.

Although the benefits and risks of its consumption are still under study, research indicates that non-nutritive sweeteners can be possible triggers of food addiction because their intake is associated with a greater preference and craving for sweet foods, increased sweetness threshold to which we get used to the palate and, with it, we gain weight.

Slow absorption carbohydrates

The two main characteristics of slow-absorbing carbohydrates are that they are complex (they are composed of sugar molecules that make up long chains together) and have low glycemic index (They raise blood sugar levels gradually, not exaggerated blood sugar spikes.)

The benefits of this type of carbohydrate are the following:

Best glycemic control. Unlike fast-absorbing carbohydrates, these allow better glycemic control (there are no sudden spikes in blood glucose after eating). This is interesting in people with diabetes.
Satiety. Being complex, they stay longer in the digestive system in contact with its walls and, therefore, send a signal of satiety to the brain. They improve the composition of the intestinal microbiota.
Regulation. In the specific case of fiber, it can act by regulating plasma cholesterol levels, interesting in the management of cardiovascular diseases. Taking nutrition to the field of food, we can find them in whole grains (rice, bread, pasta), legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas), fruit and vegetables, nuts (natural) and seeds, among others.

Therefore, it is important to consume slow-absorbing carbohydrates on a day-to-day basis and limit your consumption of fast-absorbing carbohydrates.

Not only to regulate glycemia in case of having diabetes or to control satiety in case of wanting to lose weight, but for the prevention of other metabolic diseases.

Running womanRunning womanIn long-term sports, it is necessary to include fast-absorbing carbohydrates. (Photo: Getty Images)

Poor glycemic control can trigger insulin resistance by the body. That is, the body does not recognize sugars and does not know how to act in their presence.

It is also necessary to consider that, in certain situations, such as in long-term sports, it is necessary and interesting for good performance to include fast-absorbing carbohydrates.

The importance of blood glucose spikes

The correct functioning of blood glucose is the key in this type of carbohydrate. The maintenance of a high blood glucose maintained over time (due to the consumption of poor quality processed foods) sets in motion metabolic mechanisms of lipogenesis that cause the body to store fat.

This, together with the increase in appetite when blood glucose drops again and the large caloric intake of foods with added sugar, increases the risk of developing overweight (and its associated pathologies) derived from an excessive consumption of sugars or fats of poor nutritional quality.

For this reason, the consumption of simple added sugars is discouraged: white sugar, industrial pastries, sugary soft drinks, etc. In addition, it is necessary to emphasize that the version in which we consume a certain food influences the nutritional contribution.

FruitFruitOur body processes the sugar that comes in food better. (Photo: Getty Images)

When we consume sugars present in the food matrix (fruit and vegetables, for example), our body receives them and processes it in a much more beneficial way for health than when we consume those same sugars, but added externally in the food industry or by part of the consumer.

When we talk about intrinsic simple sugar, we do not have to make great efforts to limit them, since the food as a whole (fiber, polyphenols and other substances) is of good nutritional quality.

For example, an industrial potato chip may provide less slowly absorbing sugars than a potato with cooked skin. Some puffed rice cakes produce a higher blood glucose peak than cooked brown rice and sautéed with vegetables.

Ultimately, we will need more carbohydrates the higher the degree of physical activity that we do. As with cars and gasoline.

It is important to include quality carbohydrates in our diet and take into account our physical activity to make a proportional and adequate contribution.

* Luis J. Morán Fagúndez is dean of the Professional College of Dietitians-Nutritionists of Andalusia, Pablo de Olavide University, Spain

This article was originally published on The Conversation and reproduced here under the Creative Commons license. You can click here to read the original version.

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