Sydney-based dietitian Melissa Meier says not all carbs are created equal. Do you know the difference between the two distinct groups?
In the world of wellness, carbohydrates have a bad name. Demonised as a nutrient that’ll instantly add unwanted weight to your hips and thighs, carbs are often on the list of foods to minimise with good health in mind. Truth is, however, all carbs are not bad for you. In fact, they’re an essential component of a healthy, balanced diet. But – and there is a big ‘but’ – timing and quality rules the roost.
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The low down on carbs
Carbs aren’t only found in bread and pasta – they’re widespread throughout the food supply. You’ll find them in all grain foods (think: rice, noodles, quinoa) as well as fruit, dairy and soy alternatives, and starchy veg (like potatoes, corn and legumes). You’ll also find them in foods like soft drinks, cakes, pastries, chips and ice cream. Can you tell there are two distinct groups of carbs? (Hint: everyday vs. treats).
The two factors that distinguish good-for-you-carbs from not-so-good-for-you-carbs are the glycaemic index and whether or not something is wholegrain. When you’re choosing carbs, you’re aiming to tick at least one of these boxes.
The glycaemic index is a measure of the effect of carbohydrates on your blood sugars. Low-GI carbs are found in foods like brown grainy bread, untoasted muesli and sweet potato. These foods are digested slowly and have a gentle effect on your blood sugars. High-GI carbs, like fizzy drinks and crumpets, are digested quickly, which spikes and crashes your blood sugars. While the former leaves you feeling energised, the latter leaves you feeling hungry and lethargic.
If you’re opting for a grainy food, choosing a wholegrain variety is my recommendation. Wholegrains contain all three natural layers of the grain, so they’re jam packed with fibre and essential micronutrients. Refined grains, on the other hand, have two of the three natural layers of the grain removed, leaving only the starchy component behind, which makes them far less nutrient-dense. Wholegrains are foods like wholemeal bread, rolled oats and brown rice, while refined grains include things like white bread, white rice and pastries.
The best and worst time to eat carbs
Is there a good time to eat carbs? And when should they be off the menu? The answer to this question lies in whether or not at least one of the two boxes above (read: low-GI and wholegrain) are ticked.
If your carb choices meet either of these criteria, there’s really no bad time to eat them. You heard it here first: those diet rules about no carbs after 5pm are just plain nonsense. You might be surprised to learn that at each and every main meal, good quality carbs should take up about a quarter of your plate. Yes, breakfast, lunch and dinner. With low-GI and/or wholegrain carbs in tow, you’ve got the bones of a healthy, balanced, satisfying meal down pat.
If your carb choice meets neither of these criteria, however, I’d suggest reigning it in a little. Obviously, white bread, bagels, chips, pastry and biscuits are delicious, but they don’t add a lot of nutritional value to your diet, so wouldn’t be classed as everyday fodder. That’s not to say they’re off the menu for good – but instead, they should be enjoyed mindfully in small portions, only every now and then.
Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.