By Katie Kelly
This line, made famous by Regina George in 2004’s “Mean Girls”, exemplifies the confusion and misconceptions that often surround carbohydrates. First things first, the answer is no; butter is not a carb. But what exactly are carbohydrates? Why are they needed? And how much of them should we be consuming?
Carbohydrates are macronutrients, as are fats and protein. In recent years, low-carbohydrate diets such as the Ketogenic diet and the Atkins diet have given the impression that carbohydrates are bad for our health. However, this is not the case as they are needed for a number of important functions in our bodies.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body. This is especially important when it comes to exercise, as it is the only fuel that can be used for high-intensity anaerobic exercise. They also prevent protein from being used for energy, which is important for sparing muscle tissue. Our brains also need glucose to function, which is obtained from the breakdown of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates can be categorised roughly into sugars, starch and fibre. Sugars are naturally present in many foods and are added to others such as chocolate, sweets, biscuits, certain breakfast cereals and fizzy drinks in the form of free sugars. These are the types of sugars we should aim to consume less of as they can lead to tooth decay. Starch is found in foods such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta. Fibre absorbs water in the gut, which delays gastric emptying, allowing us to feel fuller for longer and preventing constipation. Sources of fibre include fruit, vegetables, beans and lentils. Choose brown or wholegrain versions of rice, bread and pasta to increase your intake of fibre.
It is recommended that around 55% or more of our total energy intake is from carbohydrates. Athletes will need a higher intake of carbohydrates than sedentary individuals to provide energy for exercise. The Food Pyramid indicates that you should consume 3-7 portions from the “cereals, breads, potatoes, pasta and rice” group each day, depending on your age, gender and activity levels.
So, there is no need to fear the humble spud or slice of toast. Embrace these foods and just remember to enjoy them in moderation!