It has been reiterated many times, but repeated iuvant:
carbohydrates are the main energy source of our body .
Yet every time someone decides to “go on a diet” the first thing they do is eliminate of everything carbohydrates .
Yes it’s true, our body can manage to produce energy starting from fats and proteins, but it is a mechanism of emergency , why should it ever except in case of extreme necessity?
Distinction between complex and simple sugars
Let’s start by understanding what we are talking about: “carbohydrate” is a macronutrient , and together with proteins and fats it forms the triad at the base of our diet .
In everyday language, on the other hand, we always talk about carbohydrates referring to a plate of pasta, pizza or bread, without taking into account the fact that these foods are not composed exclusively of carbohydrates, but by a variable percentage of macro and micronutrients.
When a food contains predominantly a macronutrient, as in the case of carbohydrates in pasta, it is defined as “source of” and is automatically identified with its content, confusing a bit.
Having made this clarification, it is also necessary to underline that carbohydrates not are all the same , but are distinguished in simple and complex carbohydrates depending on how many units they make up.
These units are also called “monosaccharides”.
If we imagine monosaccharides as single units or pearls, we will have simple carbohydrates when composed of one or two pearls, and complex carbohydrates when composed of long necklaces formed from 20 to hundreds of pearls, more or less branched.
The monosaccharide par excellence is glucose , which we can define as the basic molecule of all carbohydrates. Other monosaccharides are for example fructose and galactose.
Simple carbohydrates composed of two pearls are called disaccharides and some examples are sucrose (the common cooking sugar that we should not put in coffee, composed of one unit of glucose and one of fructose), lactose (the sugar of milk , composed of glucose and galactose) and maltose (the malt sugar, composed of two glucose molecules).
Carbohydrates composed of many pearls are also called polysaccharides and include all starches and glycogen, both composed of long glucose chains, with different levels of branching.
Where do we find the various types of carbohydrates?
- in fruit, milk, yogurt, honey, sugar, drinks and sweets there are simple carbohydrates;
- flours, pasta, bread and substitutes, legumes, potatoes, rice, spelled and other grains contain complex carbohydrates.
What carbohydrates are consumed on average in our tables
Italian cuisine is full of representative dishes containing mainly carbohydrates.
Pasta and pizza are practically a national symbol, and have become a sign of recognition even abroad.
But also sweets, drinks, bread and other leavened products such as panettone are typical products and synonymous with Italian quality.
The result is that the consumption of carbohydrate sources in our country is decidedly high , much higher in reality than what is actually required for population .
Added to this is the problem raised by the now outdated food pyramids, which originally proposed only foods such as pasta, bread and cereals as the basis of the diet (while in the more recent pyramids are vegetables and a healthy lifestyle. have partly taken their place, such as in the Mediterranean Food Pyramid of the Fundación Dieta Mediterránea – see also my piece dedicated to the topic “What is the food pyramid”).
Excessive amounts of carbohydrates consumed in the diet, together with the current dizzying decline in physical activity, can however create a problem and promote weight gain and diseases related to overweight and obesity .
The solution, in addition to regulating (not eliminating!) the quantities and sources of carbohydrates taken from the diet, redistributing them starting from the idea of the Harvard single dish and doing it according to the physical activity performed, is also to select with greater care the quality of what we eat, starting with the introduction of less refined foods on our tables.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends increasing the consumption of whole grains to combat obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. And in Italy the same suggestion comes from LARN and INRAN Guidelines, for their richness in fiber and other substances useful to our body.
If in the recent past making this type of choice was difficult, slowly the market is adapting and more and more products are offered in their integral variants in supermarkets. Even in restaurants and pizzerias, the possibilities of consuming semi-refined or wholemeal products are increasing.
We have no more excuses .
What are the unsuspected foods that contain carbohydrates
Knowing how to read food labels is now an indispensable skill when going shopping: it is from the list ingredients that we identify a food really wholemeal , checking if wholemeal flour is the first item on the list (the ingredients are in descending order of quantity) or is at least that contained in a higher percentage.
Greater attention allows us to understand what we are really eating , and sometimes even to discover that information taken for granted turns out to be quite another thing .
There are foods that we normally put into food categories other than carbohydrates, such as sauces or meats, but if we investigate further we will realize that they also contain decent amounts of carbohydrates. We could almost call them “hidden carbohydrates”!
Most hidden carbohydrates are found in the form of sugars or similar in various products, and are used by industries mostly with technological functions such as preservatives or thickeners.
An example are ketchup or barbecue sauces, which can contain up to 40% sugar in them.
Even in canned products, such as legumes or vegetables, so convenient to use because they are practically ready for use, we will find sugar as a preservative together with salt in the preserving liquid: the advice not to give up the convenience of their use in the kitchen is to rinse them under running water before use, in order to eliminate at least part of them, and alternate them with fresh products as much as possible.
We underestimate the carbohydrate content in breading, while we are often completely unaware of the fact that mechanically assembled meats, sausages and cured meats can contain flours or starches used as agglomerants, to give thickness to the product.
The same thing also happens in frozen precooked dishes, in sauces, in stretched curd cheese-based preparations and in ready-made soups.
Last but not least, the sugar content in drinks in general and in particular in alcoholic ones must be considered, in which we easily recognize sugar but underestimate its negative effect added to the deleterious one of alcohol.
What defines a good or bad carbohydrate, why and how is it affected our health?
Categorizing food into good or bad is never a good deal because it forces us to choose irrevocably what we can or cannot eat and this can be very limiting in the convivial occasions that characterize our daily lives.
On the other hand, we have seen that a greater consumption of a certain type of food than others can have a decisive influence on our health depending on the quality of the food itself.
Based on these considerations, we can draw up preferences and define a “good” carbohydrate when it comes from foods that also provide us with other useful nutrients , as in the case of the fibers and B vitamins of whole grains.
They can instead be called “bad” carbohydrates when they come from foods that are nutritionally unbalanced because they contain too much fat, sugar or salt, as in packaged products.
It is important to know the difference, as consuming more “good” carbohydrates has a whole range of benefits for our health:
In summary, the sources of carbohydrates to be consumed in small quantities and sporadically are:
- pasta, flour, bread and bread substitutes in non-wholemeal versions;
- sweets and biscuits;
- alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including fruit juices;
- table sugar, both white and wholemeal;
- fructose used as a sweetener.
While the preferred carbohydrate sources are:
- legumes, grains, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal flour, wholemeal bread and substitutes, potatoes and sweet potatoes. These foods can be used in our meal to compose the carbohydrate portion of our main course;
- fresh and dried fruit, to be consumed up to three portions of about 100-150 g per day;
- natural yogurt and milk (if tolerated), to be consumed up to two servings a day, for example in breakfast or as a snack;
- honey to occasionally sweeten tea or herbal tea.
We must not make extreme sacrifices to manage our diet in an optimal way, but it is now essential to know the foods we bring to the table and above all the effect they can have on our metabolism and on our health .
In particular, a correct diet based on solid principles scientific , can lead you to improve the performance in every aspect of your life .
Watch the free video lesson ” Nutrition timing ” which can help you understand the mechanism by which macronutrients such as carbohydrates work and what role they play.