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Eating the right carbohydrates is complex

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Sweet potatoes are a great-tasting complex carbohydrate.

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Sweet potatoes are a great-tasting complex carbohydrate.

Good carbs, bad carbs: What's the difference?

Everywhere we look, we see conflicting messages about carbohydrates. Are carbs good for us? Should we even eat them at all?

As a registered dietitian, my job is to debunk the myths and provide accurate, trustworthy information.

Let's start with the basics. What are carbohydrates and why should we include them in our diets? Carbohydrates, very simply, are organic compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

Many common fad diets mislead us into believing we should avoid carbohydrates, but they are the primary source of energy for our body and the source of fuel for our brains.

We get carbohydrates from a variety of foods in our diet, including grains, starches, fruits and some vegetables as well as dairy products.

These foods are broken down into glucose (which is a type of sugar) our body and brain use for energy. Carbohydrates do not just supply you with energy, though the right ones can supply your body with many vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant-based nutritional compounds) it needs to function, and which can prevent certain diseases.

The body can store a small amount of carbohydrates in our liver and muscle cells for immediate use, but not enough to fuel a body during an entire day. Therefore, we need a steady intake of carbohydrates spread out between our meals and snacks. This helps control cravings and overeating and, in those with diabetes, helps maintain a more stable blood sugar level across the day.

When choosing carbohydrates, we need to choose complex over simple carbs.

Complex carbohydrates contain fibre and starches that allow the food to digest slowly in the body, resulting in a slower rise in blood sugar as well as keeping our body from feeling hungry for a longer time. Fibre (soluble and insoluble) is an important part of complex carbohydrates for many reasons. Soluble fibre helps to lower our blood cholesterol levels and insoluble fibre helps bowels maintain regularity.

Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, including brown rice and whole wheat pasta, beans and legumes and fruits such as berries and apples.

Whole grains contain the germ (as in wheat germ) and the bran portions of the grain, along with all the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Some great-tasting complex carbohydrates to try adding to your diet include black beans or edamame, pumpernickel bread, sweet potatoes, steel-cut oats, or cooked barley.

Simple carbohydrates are digested rapidly, leaving us searching for more food to satisfy our hunger. They also do not contain many health-promoting nutrients, leaving mostly empty calories.

Simple carbohydrates to avoid include fruit juices, white bread, bagels, white pasta, white potatoes or potato chips, cookies and, of course, added sugar.

All sugars (white, brown, coconut, palm) and natural sugars such as honey or jams have the same rapid effect on blood sugars. Do your best to reduce or eliminate them from your diet.

It is important to remember that, even when choosing complex carbohydrates, portions matter. Overeating any food, even if it is a healthy choice, will result in excess calories being stored as fat in our bodies, leading to weight gain and increasing our risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.


Dawn D'Ottavio is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2013 A25

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