• Melissa Genee, RD

All About Carbohydrates

Over the last couple weeks we have discussed two out of three macronutrients - protein and fat! Last, (but certainly not least) is… carbohydrate! Carbohydrates are arguably our most consumed and enjoyed macronutrient. Many of our children’s favourite foods contain carbohydrates, such as pancakes, macaroni and cheese, pizza, mashed potatoes and so many more! However, carbohydrates are another macronutrient that gets bad press. In recent years, low carb diets have become increasingly popular, labeling carbohydrates as “bad for health”. But contrary to popular belief, our bodies need carbohydrates to function. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal and it is important to choose the best ones. Read on to learn about why carbohydrates are important, the different types of carbohydrates and how to make the best carbohydrate choices for you and your family.

What are Carbohydrates and Why are They So Important?

Carbohydrates are macronutrients found in foods that supply energy and nutrients. Many foods contain carbohydrates but they are mainly found in grain products (such as rice, pasta, bread and cereal), starchy vegetables (potatoes, yams, corn and peas), fruits, milk and alternatives (cow’s milk, soy milk and yogurt) and meat alternatives (lentils, beans, and peas). All vegetables, including broccoli, carrots and cauliflower, contain small amounts of carbohydrates as well. Carbohydrates are also found in other foods such as ice cream, pop, candy, chocolate, baked goods, chips and pretzels.

When we eat carbohydrate containing foods, our body breaks them down into sugar or glucose, which gets absorbed into our body through the blood. Every cell in our body then uses that glucose and turns it into energy to function! Remember, protein and fat also supply energy for our body, however our bodies tend to prefer carbohydrates as they more easily supply energy. It is also important to note that our brains exclusively require glucose to function! Without enough carbohydrates in our diet, we can feel tired, sluggish and may not be able to focus at school or participate in sports.

Foods that contain carbohydrates not only supply our body with its main source of fuel, they also provide important nutrients such as B vitamins, iron and fibre!

Carbohydrate Types

There are many different kinds of carbohydrates, however, they can generally be split into three different categories:

1. Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are also known as simple sugars. Foods that contain simple sugars are typically sweeter, will break down easy and are quickly turned into glucose for the body to use. Because these foods break down easy, they can raise our blood sugar levels fairly quickly, so they can give us energy a little bit faster.

Examples of foods containing simple sugars include fruit and milk, however, they are also found in refined and processed foods such as candy, pop, juices, jam and syrups. So does that mean I should drink juices and pops instead of eating whole fruits? The answer: no.

The sugars found in fruits and milk are known as natural sugars, while the sugars found in syrups, candy and pop are referred to as added sugars. And while our bodies treat both sugars the same, foods with natural sugars have important minerals and vitamins that foods with added sugars do not. Fruits, when eaten whole, provide fibre which helps to control blood sugar levels by raising them more steadily. For these reasons, even though fruits and milk contain simple sugars, it is still important to eat these foods every day.

On the contrary, when consuming foods with added sugars (and fruit juices), our bodies rapidly absorb and use these sugars. This means that our blood sugar levels raise fairly quickly but this is followed by a rapid decline in sugar levels as well. Because of this, we often feel hungry shortly after eating these types of foods.

2. Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are also known as starches. Starches are found in many foods such as pastas, breads, crackers, cereals, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, beans, peas and lentils. When we eat starch containing foods, our bodies still break them down into glucose, however because starch molecules are bigger and more complex, that process takes longer as compared to simple carbohydrates. Our bodies absorb these sugars at a slower rate, which means that we feel fuller for longer. Like simple carbohydrates, some starch containing foods are also refined (such as white bread, white rice and white pasta), meaning that some minerals and vitamins are removed during processing. We should aim to include unrefined foods more often than refined foods.

3. Fibre

Fibre is another type of carbohydrate, however, unlike simple and complex carbohydrates, fibre does not break down into sugar or glucose. Instead, fibre passes through our body undigested. Why is that important? Fibre containing foods slow down the release of sugar into our blood, meaning that we feel fuller for much longer. Fibre also has added benefits such as reducing bad cholesterol and promoting regularity. Fibre is found in many foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds. It is important to note that foods that contain fibre, will likely contain starches or complex carbohydrates as well.

Carbohydrate Choices

Like fats and protein, not all carbohydrates are created equal but all types of carbohydrates can be part of a healthy diet. It is generally recommended that most of the carbohydrates we choose to eat are complex carbohydrates containing fibre such as whole grain breads, whole grain pastas, whole grain cereals, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds. Although fruits and milk are considered simple carbohydrates, these foods are still important to enjoy as part of a healthy diet as they provide important minerals and vitamins. In general, it is best to include a variety of unrefined and complex carbohydrates in our diet.

With regards to sugar, the World Health Organization recommends to limit added sugars to less than 5% of our daily total intake. For an average child aged 5-10, that means about 5 tsp of added sugars each day. To put that in perspective, 1 can of coke contains 10 tsp of sugar - double the recommended intake! Continue reading to find out how to make the best carbohydrate choices for your family.

Making Healthy Choices

Use these tips to make healthy carbohydrate choices:

1. Use the nutrition label when purchasing packaged products

  • Try to look at the percent daily value or %DV to determine if a product is high or low in fibre or sugar (remember that 5% is low, 15% is high). Ideally, we want products that are low in sugar and high in fibre.

2. Limit added sugars in your family's diet

  • Health Canada recently introduced changes to the nutrition label to show the %DV for total sugars as well (total sugars include natural AND added so you will have to read the ingredient list to look for added sugars)! Unfortunately, the %DV is based on 100 grams or 25 tsp of sugar (far more than any child should be consuming). Read more about the food labeling changes here.

  • Make sure to check out the ingredient list to determine if sugars have been added to a food product. The new labelling changes also mean that all sugars will be grouped together and labeled as “sugars”, making it easier for consumers to understand how much sugar has been added to a product.

  • Many added sugars in children’s diets come from drinks such as pop, fruit beverages and sports drinks - offer milk and water instead. Sugary treats can be enjoyed in moderation and for special occasions, however it is best to limit sources of added sugar in our everyday diet.

3. Look for options high in fibre

  • When reading the nutrition label, take a look at the fibre content as well. As a general rule, 3 grams per serving is considered a good source whereas 5 grams per serving is considered an excellent source of fibre. Remember that children aged 1-3 need 19 grams of fibre each day and children aged 4-8 require 25 grams each day.

  • When choosing grains, keep in mind that whole grain products tend to have more fibre than their refined counterparts. Look for products that have at least 2 g of fibre per serving as well as list a “whole grain” as the first ingredient. Although confusing, the terms “whole wheat”, “multigrain” and “stone ground” do not necessarily mean the product is whole grain.

  • Vegetables and fruits are also good sources of fibre. When possible, try to keep the skin on your vegetables for an added boost of fibre. Check out these suggestions for adding more fresh produce to your family’s diet.

  • Try to include plant proteins such as beans, peas and lentils more often. These foods are great sources of protein, vitamins and iron! For more information on cooking with beans, peas and lentils (as well as tasty recipes!), check out Unlock Food: Cooking with Legumes.

Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel that keeps our bodies going! It is best to choose unrefined complex carbohydrates that contain fibre more often, such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Aim to reduce added sugars in your children’s diets by limiting sugary treats, juice and pop and offering fruits, milk and water more often.

It’s important to remember that all macronutrients are important. Our bodies need protein, fat and carbohydrates to grow, develop and function properly! Restricting or reducing groups of foods can have a negative impact on our health so make it a habit to enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods each day.


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