Why your body needs it and the best sources

For years, carbohydrates have been demonized as the culprit for weight gain, diabetes and other health problems.

However, not all carbohydrates are created equal and, in fact, they play an important role in a healthy vegan diet.

Let’s explore the truth about this misunderstood macronutrient, while giving you some debunked tips on how to eat right by incorporating healthy carbs into your meals.

What are Carbohydrates?

According to biologist Veronika Charvatova, a carbohydrate is a molecule made up of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. They can be simple (sugar) or complex (starch and fibers), depending on how many molecules are linked together, of the different types and quantities.

Both simple and complex carbohydrates can be part of a healthy diet. When carbohydrates are digested, they release glucose into the bloodstream. Some foods release it faster. Based on this, a measure of the rate of glucose release was invented – the glycemic index (GI).

Foods that release glucose quickly have a high GI and are a good source of quick energy: dates, refined grains, potatoes.

Foods that release it slowly have a low GI and are good for sustained energy release over a longer period of time – most fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Then there’s a whole range of foods with a medium GI – wholemeal products, brown rice, polenta.

What are simple carbohydrates?

Simple carbohydrates are single sugar molecules (glucose, fructose) or two sugar molecules linked together (table sugar, milk sugar – lactose).

They are digested quickly and we should therefore pay attention to our intake, with the exception of fruit and vegetables.

These naturally contain fructose, a simple sugar, but when eaten fresh and whole they also provide a wealth of complex carbohydrates along with many other nutrients, which slow down the rate at which sugars are released.

Fruits and vegetables are among the healthiest of foods, so there’s no need to limit your intake. They’re best eaten raw, lightly cooked, or pureed into a smoothie, but avoid canned varieties.

Beware of fruit juices, as they contain almost no fiber and, unless freshly made, undergo a pasteurization process that destroys much of the goodness.

The result can be little more than fresh water. It’s similar for ready-made smoothies: Many are mostly juice and contain only a fraction of whole fruit. They are also pasteurized. You’d better make your own!

What are complex carbohydrates?

These consist of many molecules linked together in complex structures and usually mean starch and fibers. The difference is that we can digest starch well, your body breaks it down into individual glucose molecules, whereas we cannot digest fiber.

Starch is naturally a part of many foods, such as whole grains, legumes, root vegetables, squash, squash, and so on, all of which are part of a healthy diet. These foods contain starch along with many other nutrients, and your body digests them more slowly.

On the other hand, refined starches used as a binder in foods such as cookies, processed snack foods and sweets are extracted from natural sources in a process that strips off other nutrients.

This ensures they aren’t very healthy, because you digest them quickly, which can cause high blood sugar levels.

Too much sugar in your blood at any given time — more than your cells can handle — and your body will try to restore the balance by removing some of the sugar and storing it as fat.

Are Carbohydrates Bad?

The simple answer is no, carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet! Second guidelines for healthy eatingcarbohydrates are the main source of energy in balanced diets, and some carbohydrate-rich plant foods are important sources of a variety of nutrients.

Healthy carbohydrates include fruits and starchy foods such as oats, noodles, potatoes and rice. As a general rule, it’s good to get your carbohydrates from fiber-rich foodssuch as whole grains and jacket potatoes.

Many other nutritious plant foods contain some carbohydrates as part of a varied nutritional profile. For example, legumes such as beans, Chickpeas and lentils provide some “slow release” energy in the form of carbohydrates, as well as good quality vegan protein.

Are low-carb diets healthy?

Low-carb, ketogenic, or paleo diets usually focus on foods high in protein and fat and severely limit your carbohydrate intake. This forces your metabolism to switch and draw energy primarily from fat and protein, which makes you less hungry and leads to weight loss.

But – and it’s a big but! – these diets are only effective for short-term weight loss and have a number of unpleasant adverse effects such as constipation, headaches, kidney fatigue, bad breath, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased cholesterol levels and more.

In the long run, they are no more effective for weight loss and maintenance than low-fat diets, which have no nasty side effects and allow the body to function naturally.

Tips for cut sugar from your diet

The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that most UK diets contain too much of these types of carbohydrates and the Healthy Eating Guidelines encourage us to limit our sugar intake.

The following tips from Vegan Society dietitian Heather Russell will help you eat well and make plenty of room in your diet for nutrient-dense foods:

  • Choose simple breakfast cereals and add your favorite nutritious toppings for sweetness, such as fresh berries, chopped apple and raisins.
  • For a healthy and sweet snack that’s a little different, try freezing grapes or a peeled banana.
  • It’s often possible to simply reduce the amount of sugar used when cooking, so don’t be afraid to experiment healthy dessert recipes.
  • Limit fruit juices or smoothies to one shot glass (150ml) a day.
  • Drink less sugary drinks and more tap water – a healthy and sustainable choice.

Remember that our sugar preferences are flexible, but it may take a few weeks to get used to a new or different taste.

How to eat enough healthy carbohydrates to fuel an active lifestyle

During long workouts or endurance races, athletes often need to replenish energy quickly and that means eating fast carbohydrates on the go. The best natural sources are:

  • At your place
  • Bananas
  • Sweet Potato Mash
  • raisins

These foods help provide energy to fuel performance when the body’s energy stores begin to run low.

However, if your workouts last no longer than 60-90 minutes (depending on the intensity), you probably don’t need to worry.

If you’re an active person, it’s especially important to pay attention to your carbohydrate intake. Here are some tips for fueling an energy-demanding lifestyle:

  • Eat regularly throughout the day, including carbohydrate-rich foods such as oats, potatoes, brown rice, whole-grain spaghetti and pasta, whole-wheat bread, and fruit. If your appetite is limited, opting for some white noodles, pasta and rice will help make your diet a little less cluttered.
  • If you are unable to eat a light meal two to three hours before exercise, nuts, sports drinks, fruit juices, smoothies or carbohydrate gels may be helpful immediately before exercise and during prolonged exercise when other forms of carbohydrates may not be tolerated. Remember to wash them with water and take care of your teeth.
  • After exercise, refuel with a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack and rehydrate as soon as possible to support rapid recovery.

Ready to bring carbs back into your life? Discover which carbohydrates are the most sustainable.

Featured Image © ricka_kinamoto via Adobe Stock

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