Carbs, Healthy Carbs, Processed Carbs, Sugar, What's the difference?

October 14, 2017


I'm sat in my kitchen, coffee brewing, trying to decide what to write about this afternoon when my girlfriend kindly serves me my pasta and chicken lunch. Then it hits me, CARBS! Lets talk about carbohydrates. 


In my day to day job as a diabetes dietitian carbohydrates are key for optimal glycaemic control for my patients. So I've come to learn a thing or two about carbohydrates. 


Carbohydrates get bad press. Typically, they are associated with weight gain with seemingly every celebrity endorsing cutting them out to achieve that celeb body. But what is it about carbohydrates which predisposes them to weight gain?


The truth is, carbohydrates aren't necessarily the bad guy or associated with weight gain. Instead, it is the portions of carbohydrates that people choose to eat which cause an excess calorie intake which consequently leads to weight gain.


Carbohydrate is umbrella term for several sub categories of food. The first of is known as starchy carbohydrates. Classic examples of these foods include:

  • Bread

  • Rice

  • Spaghetti

  • Cereal

  • Oats

  • Pastry

  • Flour

  • Rye

  • Pizza Bases

  • Potatoes - all kinds

  • Crisp Breads

  • Pastry

And the list goes on. Essentially anything made with wheat, flour, rye, oats and potatoes are starchy carbohydrates. Starchy carbohydrates effect your blood glucose levels because once digested they are converted into glucose. 


The other major subheading under the carbohydrate umbrella is SUGAR. Sugar is a carbohydrate and is therefore also broken down into glucose. Starchy carbohydrates and sugar are both converted into glucose once digested and absorbed into the body.


There are two further distinct categories of sugar. The first refers to added, processed, refined or free sugars. All these words relate to the same meaning. This means the sugars are manufactured by humans.


Examples of this include:

  • Cakes

  • Biscuits

  • Chocolate

  • Sweets

  • Sugar

  • Honey - usually processed after extraction from the hive

  • syrup - as above

  • cereal bars (can be a combination of starchy and sugar)

  • Jam, marmalade and other spreads

And once again the list continues.


This leaves one final subcategory of sugar which will effect your blood glucose levels. These are the natural sugars found in fruit and dairy products.


The sugar naturally found in fruit is known as fructose. The sugar contained within dairy products is known as lactose and is found in milk and yogurts but rarely cheese due to processing practices.


We therefore have 1 umbrella term; carbohydrates, of which there are two sub categories - starchy and sugar - and within the sugar subcategory we have 2 further subcategories - processed and natural.


Those without diabetes do not have to really worry too much about blood glucose levels but fortunately the dietary advice is very similar for those with and those without diabetes and it is simply healthy eating. 


The difference between the different types of carbohydrates mainly lies in the nutritional quality and calorie content. Starchy carbohydrates vary depending on their chemical structure and extent of processing. For example, white varieties of starchy carbohydrate tend to be less healthy than wholegrain version.


This is because starchy carbohydrates when gathered from the farm have 4 main constituents; wheat, endosperm, germ and bran. With white varieties we process out the majority of these nutrients often leaving only wheat. With wholegrain carbohydrates, more of the 4 constituents are left intact preserving the nutritional value of the food. 


Fruit comes with various vitamins and minerals and is also a fantastic source of soluble fibre which is good for gut health. It is also low calorie compared to other processed carbohydrates of a similar size and weight. 


Diary products provide our best source of calcium in our diets and are therefore great for maintaining healthy bones. However, it isn't the lactose which is responsible for this nutritional benefit and lactose free dairy products are available. 


Processed sugar, is the danger area as these offer little nutritional value and are high in calories. They are a very good way of gaining weight and best kept to a minimum. 


However, when most people discuss carbohydrates as bad for weight, I believe they are referring to the starchy variety. So lets look at these in more detail.


First, try to move away from just thinking about weight and start to think about the nutritional value. Aim of wholegrain carbohydrates to maximise the amount of nutrition in the food. 


With starchy carbohydrates it is really the portion which makes the difference. Starchy carbs should take up no more than a quarter or a fist size of your plate (at your next meal serve a standard portion size for you and see how you compare). Protein and vegetables should then take up the remainder of your plate. For the best health benefits I would recommend half of the plate being dedicated to vegetables (and the vegetables can be integrated with the protein and/or like with a casserole so it isn't always sat separately from the other foods). If you can't do this, aim to dedicate at least as much room on the plate to vegetables as you would to protein. 


If you are following this advice regularly and still aren't losing weight I would suspect your reasons are slightly more advanced and may require some specialist input like my Winning Weight Loss Programme. However, for the vast majority of you, this should suffice. 


Let me know how you get on. 





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