Carbohydrates. Fuel for the body or empty calories?

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The main reason why we eat carbs is to provide our bodies with fuel, add bulk to foods and to keep the gut clean and healthy. Carbohydrates provide us with glucose which is converted to energy for physical activity and basic body functions.

In simplest terms carbohydrates are made of captured sunlight. Green plants use sun’s energy to create carbohydrates.

There are three types of carbohydrates sugars, starch and fibre. Sugars and starch provide energy for the body and fibre helps to move the food along the digestive tract.

As with the other two macro nutrients carbs are divided into two large groups – healthy and unhealthy carbs.

Healthy sources of carbs are whole grains, beans, fruit and vegetables. Whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts are nutrient dense – apart from sugars, starch and fibre they provide us with proteins, vitamins, lipids, and minerals found in the bran, germ.

Any whole grain structure consists of 3 basic elements:

Bran – this is the hard outer layer or shell of the grain. Bran contains fibre, minerals and antioxidants.

Germ – this is the core or the embryo of the new plant. Grain germ is rich in fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

Endosperm – this part of the grain consists mostly of starch. It provides nutrients when the grain sprouts and grows.

Unhealthy refined carbohydrates are stripped of the outer layer – bran and germ – the two elements of the grain which contain valuable nutrients.

Any cabs that are white (white rice, pasta, white bread, pastries) and refined carbs (sugar, sodas, sweets) should be avoided because they are stripped of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Refined carb are digested very quickly affecting blood sugar levels.

How carbohydrates are digested.

The entire digestive tract is involved in the digestion of carbs. Digestion begins in the mouth where salivary enzymes are mixed with the food and continues in the stomach where starch is mixed with digestive acid.

In the small intestine starch-splitting enzyme delivered by the pancreas continue breaking down starch into simple sugars which will be absorbed into the blood steam. Fibre which cannot be digested is moved by wave like movement of the small intestine into the colon.


In modern diet we get most of the carbohydrates from grains. The most popular, cheap and readily available grains are wheat, maze and rice.

Whole Grains: barley, brown rice, bulgur, corn, kamut, millet, oats, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale, wheat berries, wild rice.

Psudograins: amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.

Whole grain means whole grain – a single ingredient food e.g. a plate of rice. Some ultra-processed foods are labelled as ‘whole grain’ or ‘whole white rice’ e.g. Coco Pops. These processed products contain some whole grain flour which has been pulverized into something that has no nutritional value whatsoever.

Anti-nutrients, gluten, lectin, phytic acid.

Gluten is a protein found in most grains – wheat, rye, spelt and barley. Any foods that are made from these grains also contain gluten e.g. bread and pasta. A huge number of people – up to 13 percent of the population may have some sort of gluten intolerance. The most severe form of gluten intolerance is Celiac disease; in many cases it is undiagnosed.

If you have symptoms of gluten intolerance (bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headache, tiredness, skin rashes, depression) it is probably a good idea to try a gluten free diet.

Phytic acid is found in grains, seeds, legumes and nuts. This is a mineral-binding acid, sometimes it is called an anti-nutrient because it interferes with digestion and impairs the absorption of iron, zinc and calcium.

Plants use lectins, saponins, and protease inhibitors to protect grains from being eaten by animals and humans. For example, protease inhibitors protect the seed from being digested in the gut by blocking digestive enzymes from breaking down the seed.

These anti-nutrients may disturb digestive process and have some other negative effects.

The negative effects of anti-nutrients found in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can be minimised by using traditional preparation methods. These methods include germinating or sprouting, roasting or soaking.

Soaking starts the natural germination process which neutralises anti-nutrients and increases nutritional value of grains, legumes and nuts. Soaking and fermenting helps to neutralise phytic acid.

What grains to avoid?

Avoid wheat, especially products made from white wheat flour. We mostly consume wheat in the form of bread and pasta which are made from wheat flour. Any flour, including whole grain flour, is made using modern grain milling and flour processing methods involving chemicals. Flour is also enriched with synthetic nutrients. Some brands of bread can contain up to 23 artificial additives.

Wheat and wheat products are also a source of gluten which can be a major factor in digestive problems for many people.

What grains to eat?

Grains without gluten: rice, corn, oats, quinoa, flax, millet.

Pseudograins and non-gluten grains: amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa. Quinoa also contains a complete protein (all the essential amino acids).

Popular grain replacement seeds: hemp, flax, or chia.

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