The consumption of carbohydrates usually raises great doubts. Are they healthy? Do they make you fat at night? What are low carbohydrates, and why should they be avoided in the diet? What do they have to do with the glycemic index? In this article, we will clarify all these questions.
Carbohydrates are one of the most controversial macronutrients for ordinary consumers. Why is that? The truth is that there is a widespread phobia of carbohydrates, as there are many nutrition myths surrounding them.
The main myth is that carbohydrates, or sugars as they are also called, make us gain weight. Just like that, without further analysis. It’s almost like dogma. It is often said that carbohydrates make you fatter at night than at any other time. But guess what? Whether it’s at night, in the morning, or at noon, the truth is that there is no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that carbohydrates make you fatter at one time of day than another. You can rest easy.
What are low-quality carbohydrates?
However, certain foods contain carbohydrates that are not of the best nutritional quality. Because, of course, there are different types of carbohydrates. And not all of them are of good nutritional quality.
In general, there are two types of carbohydrates:
- Complex carbohydrates: those from raw materials such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. A popular carbohydrate is starch, which consists of long glucose chains linked together and is the reserve energy source of vegetables.
- Simple carbohydrates: Also called simple sugars. We usually find them in ultra-processed foods of poor nutritional quality, such as pastries, snacks, candy, chocolate, and other highly palatable products.
Risks of a diet with a high glycemic index
In general, complex carbohydrates have a healthier profile than simple carbohydrates. The main reason is that the body usually takes longer to assimilate them, resulting in a lower glucose peak.
This is where the glycemic index (IG) concept is introduced, which corresponds to the rate at which blood glucose is absorbed after food is consumed.
To clarify, the glycemic index ranges from 0-100, with 100 being the value associated with pure glucose. Based on this value, foods can be categorized into high or low glycemic index groups.
A high glycemic index means that food is problematic for health because it causes blood glucose levels to rise quickly. For clarification, you can read about the glycemic index of different foods at this link from the Diabetes Foundation.
Here we also give you some examples:
Examples of low GI foods (0 to 55):
- Whole grains, pasta, bulgur, barley, quinoa, or oats.
- Carrots, non-starchy green vegetables.
- Fruits such as apples, oranges, and grapes.
- Nuts such as walnuts, and legumes such as beans.
- Milk and yogurt.
Examples of high GI foods (>70):
- White bread and refined grains.
- White rice.
- Honey and sugar.
- Fruits like watermelon and pineapple.
Simple sugars such as sucrose are absorbed very quickly, which is related to the well-known insulin resistance and other metabolic problems derived from it, such as diabetes itself.
In short, insulin is a hormone secreted in the pancreas to transport glucose. However, if an excess of glucose is constantly produced, insulin loses its effectiveness, and serious health problems such as diabetes and other metabolic disorders can occur.
Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, take longer to be absorbed. Not all of them, though. Potatoes, rice, and white bread are among the complex carbohydrates, but they also cause blood sugar to rise relatively quickly.
The presence of fiber is often a key factor in slowing this process, leading to better health. So choosing whole grain flour instead of refined flour greatly helps us improve the nutritional profile of the carbohydrates we eat.
This happens because whole wheat flour contains all the components of the cereal grain:
- The germ: is the “heart” of the grain and is lost when the flour is refined. It contains very interesting amounts of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.
- Endosperm: The whitest and largest part of the grain from which refined flour is derived.
- Bran: It is the grain envelope and contains practically all the fiber. This part is also removed during flour refining, although it has a high nutritional value.
Why intrinsic sugars are not harmful?
All sugars or simple carbohydrates are harmful and should be avoided daily. However, there are some exceptions:
For example, the simple sugars found inside healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and greens. They are called “intrinsic sugars.” In this case, the simple sugars are surrounded by a healthy food matrix of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that cushion their effects on the blood. In other words, they reduce the blood sugar spikes that result from their intake and glycemic index.
Therefore, we should judge a carbohydrate not only by its type (simple or complex) but also by the food it contains and other associated components such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
The advantages of resistant starch
In addition, we can produce some types of carbohydrates with a health bonus, such as the well-known resistant starch. In this case, we are talking about foods such as potatoes and rice, which have a relatively high glycemic index.
Fortunately, we can keep them refrigerated after cooking to achieve “starch recovery”. In this process, the long glucose chains contract and behave like a kind of dietary fiber with great benefits for our health: greater satiety, improvement of the intestinal microbiota, and prevention of metabolic diseases.