Despite what you think you know, carbs are not the enemy


By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article publishedSep 14, 2020

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Carbohydrates are one of the main types of macromolecules that your body needs to function properly. They’re found in fruit and vegetables, pasta, bread, legumes, dairy products and any foods containing sugar.

Carbs have been blamed for everything from the obesity epidemic to our skyrocketing rates of diabetes and heart disease.

But are carbs really the enemy? Tirsa Bezuidenhout a registered dietitian and Association For Dietetics in South Africa (Adsa) spokesperson, answers all our questions on carbs and gives us tips on how to make them work.

Why do people think that carbs are the enemy?

Carbohydrates are considered to be ‘the enemy’ because of their association with weight gain and lifestyle diseases (including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, kidney failure and even certain types of cancer).

This is mainly due to the prominent role which starch (read refined and processed starch) and sugar has played in the modern Western diet, which many nations have adopted as their norm. Starches are indeed one source of carbohydrates (amylase and amylopectin, among others), but fructose (found in fruit), lactose (found in dairy) and even fibre are other examples of carbohydrates which are not only beneficial, but in most cases, essential to the functioning of a healthy human body.

The fact is that the type and amount of carbohydrates consumed are the key determinants in whether a carbohydrate is healthy or not.

Healthy carbs

Bezuidenhout says naturally occurring and unprocessed carbohydrates are the healthiest to consume: they usually have lower amounts of carbohydrates per portion; have more fibre and require more energy for digestion and absorption. Examples of healthy carbohydrates include: sweet potato and potato (with the skin on); legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils); wheat and other grains (for example, quinoa, barley, millet and spelt); samp; rice (brown/ black/ wild); and oats, maize or Maltabella porridge.

Unhealthy carbs

Unhealthy carbohydrates usually refer to refined or processed carbohydrates, salty crackers and crisps, refined and sugar-laden breakfast cereals, confectionery (bakes, cakes, rusks, doughnuts and biscuits), take-aways and other convenience meals such as vetkoek, pizza, hamburgers, hot chips, pies, and poor-quality yoghurt and dairy snacks containing mainly sugar-sweetened milk and flavour agents, and flavoured milk drinks.

Meals that contain large portions of carbohydrates

  • Large portions of saucy pasta dishes with no significant protein or vegetable portions
  • Medium-large smoothies or juices (even when freshly squeezed with no added sugar)
  • Large milk beverages (latte, cappuccino, malted drinks)
  • Sugar-containing snacks: chocolate-coated nuts or pretzels, dried fruit coated with sugar
  • Take-aways and convenience meals
  • Confectionery

Why are complex carbohydrates different?

Complex carbohydrates contain many important nutrients: fibre, B vitamins, magnesium and iron, to name a few. They require more energy to be digested and absorbed, which is important for maintaining an energy balance (energy consumed versus energy used). They make meals more satiating and prevent hunger pangs as well as providing a gradual energy release for the body to perform its vital functions.

The fibre in these carbohydrates (found in starch, fruit and vegetables) supports the digestive system and is involved in the effective control of both glucose and cholesterol levels, as well as blood pressure.

It is no myth that unhealthy carbohydrates encourage sugar cravings, cause lethargy and feelings of constant hunger and contribute to the ‘spare tyre’ around our waist, but the opposite is true of complex carbohydrates

Bezuidenhout says it’s important to note that carbs have a bad rap because the wrong representatives have been filling our plates: from big bowls of sugar-laden cereal to sandwiches topped with sugar-containing fillings; refined and sugar-packed snacks and ’comfort’ meals that do anything but comfort in the long term, we should redefine the carbs that have pride of place in our diets and embrace them as one piece of the very large puzzle that makes up healthy and enjoyable meals.


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