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Nutrition Column

A simple answer to a complex carbohydrate!

With the onslaught of “low-carb’ and “Carb free” foods, of the Atkins diet and South Beach diet, both low Carbohydrate diets, and many restaurants featuring low-carb fare what is it about carbs that are so bad? If anything at all.

Carbohydrates (or simply carbs), which are found in foods of plant origin and dairy products, are an important nutrient in a healthy diet. Carbohydrates are essential nutrients that provide our bodies and brains with the energy they need to function.

They are divided into two categories: simple carbs (simple sugars - including glucose, fructose (or fruit sugar found in fruit, some vegetables, honey, and saps), sucrose (or table sugar also found in honey, maple syrup, some fruit & vegetables, and grains), and lactose (found in dairy). Fruits, nonstarchy vegetables, and dairy products are simple carbohydrates. Complex carbs consists of long chains of glucose and are found in grains, such as rice and wheat, legumes (dried beans) and tubers (yams and potatoes). Another complex carbohydrate, which is essential in the human diet, yet non-digestible is fiber.

Complex carbs - not necessarily better! Old wisdom was that complex carbohydrates were healthier than simple carbohydrates because complex carbs contained fiber. However, a complex carbohydrate can be refined, such as white breads, white rice, and white flours. These refined “complex” carbohydrates have had many beneficial nutrients removed - including vitamins, minerals, and most of their fiber.

Most of us know that vitamins and minerals are beneficial. Well, fiber is too. Fiber is healthy because it lower blood cholesterol, aids elimination, reduces the risk of hormone-dependent tumors, is filling, and slows the absorption of glucose. Alternatively, simple carbohydrates can be unrefined and contain fiber, such as the simple carbohydrates in fruits and nonstarchy vegetables. In addition, fiber lowers the glycemic index of a carbohydrate making it less likely to cause a rapid spike in blood glucose after eating it. In fact, some fruits, which are primarily simple sugars, have lower glycemic indices than many complex carbs.

Think “unrefined” rather than complex. Instead of using the term “complex” to describe healthy carbohydrates, think of the term “unrefined” to describe the healthier carbohydrates - the carbohydrates as they are found in nature, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole, intact grains.

Eating unrefined carbohydrates is recommended by virtually every scientific and medical organization and is the way to health and longevity. The National Academies’ Institute of Medicine recommends that carbohydrates contribute 45% to 65% of an adult’s daily calories.

So if there is a good or bad carbohydrate, think more in terms of refined versus unrefined (limiting your intake of refined carbs), rather than simple versus complex.

Written by Dr. Sternlicht for on 09.23.05