A beginner guide to carbs for healthier living

Carbs, or carbohydrates to give them their full name, are your body’s primary source of energy. If your goal is to become healthier then you need to know your carbs. So, here is a beginner guide.

They are made up of fibre, starch, and sugar. In short, fibre and starch are complex carbohydrates, while sugar is a simple carb. How much of each of these you eat determines its nutrient quality. The more fibrous the carbohydrate the better it generally tends to be.

The body turns all carbs in glycogen – a form of glucose – and stores it in your muscles, liver and bloodstream. Your body can then use this stored energy when needed. What makes them different is how quickly the body converts them.

The 3 types of carbs

Roughly carbs provide 4 calories for every gram. You often hear people talk of good and bad carbs. This is because there are 3 different types of carbohydrate and each act a different way on the body. The 3 types are:

  1. Fibrous carbohydrates. These contain high levels of fibre. This acts to slow the conversion of carbs into glycogen, which sustains your energy supply over the day. It also helps maintain a constant level of blood sugar, ensuring you remain alert throughout the day.
  2. Simple carbohydrates. These are sugars and are rapidly converted by your body and used quickly as energy. This means your blood sugar level rises and falls quickly. If you find yourself slumped over your desk mid-afternoon then you are eating too many simple carbs. Your body is craving more sugar to keep you ticking over, making you more likely to reach for sugary snacks as a boost.
  3. Complex carbohydrates. These are starchy foods such as white pasta, rice, potatoes and bread. They also raise your blood sugar level. Any rise in blood sugar levels causes a sharp rise in insulin. This promotes glycogen storage. However, high levels of insulin production also promote the fat storage. So while you enjoy a surge of energy, you are also adding to that spare tyre unless you are a dedicated body-builder.

Foods with fibrous carbs

So, for a general healthier lifestyle that boosts your wellbeing you need to eat more fibrous carbohydrates and fewer simple and complex carbs. However, if you are very physically active with pursuits such as body-building you will find complex carbohydrates useful.

As a rule of thumb, when buying foods you should be looking on the packet for 1 gram of fibre to 10 grams of carbohydrates. Daily foods that contain fibrous carbs are:

  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Green Beans
  • Cabbage
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Peas
  • Carrots
  • Courgettes

So, what are the foods with simple and complex carbohydrates in them? They are:

High in simple carbohydrates

  • Sugar (white/brown)
  • Jam, honey, marmalade
  • Most boxed cereals
  • Tinned fruits
  • Yoghurt
  • Fromage frais
  • Ice cream
  • Jelly
  • Sweets/chocolates
  • Biscuits
  • Cakes

High in complex carbohydrates

  • Bread (brown/whole wheat)
  • Pasta (brown if possible)
  • Rice (brown if possible)
  • Noodles
  • Oats/porridge
  • Breakfast cereals (whole wheat only)

You can find out more about carbohydrates on the NHS Change4Life website here.