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Carbohydrates are fuel for your body. They are found in all grains, cereals, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables. In their natural form they are great for your body and can increase weight loss. But not all carbs are created equal. The more a food is processes the less good and more bad it does to your body. Avoid processed carbohydrates.

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What it is

Carbohydrates are organic compounds that are your body’s main source of energy; they are an easy and plentiful source for your body. Plants use the energy of the sun to grow; this energy is then stored in the roots, stalks, leaves, fruit and flowers. When you eat plants your body uses their internally stored energy.

The sugar molecule is the building block of every carbohydrate. Starches and fibers are basically chains of these sugar molecules. Some have few molecules, others contain hundreds of sugars. Some of the chains are straight while others have many branches.

Your digestive system breaks carbohydrates down into the simple sugar molecule glucose (blood sugar), as only these are small enough to move into the blood stream. This glucose is the main source of energy for all the cells in your body. Fiber is an exception to this. It is constructed in such a way that it can not be broken down into simple sugar molecules so passes through your body undigested. Fiber does not nourish your body but it has many other health benefits as it moves through your digestive system.

Your body can survive without carbohydrates, they are not in the strict sense an essential nutrient to the body as proteins can be converted to carbohydrates although the problem with a non-carbohydrate diet is that is it difficult to get enough energy from protein alone to feed your brain and give you energy to live, also excessive protein in the diet has its own set of issues

Carbs ain’t carbs! Not all carbohydrates were created equal. 

Carbohydrates were once often divided into two main groups, simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple Carbohydrates are broken down fast, releasing a quick burst of energy into your blood. These include sugars, such as fruit sugar (fructose), corn or grape sugar (dextrose or glucose), and table sugar (sucrose). Complex carbohydrates were any that included three or more linked sugars. They release energy into your bloodstream at a slower pace. As it turns out the story is more complicated than that.

At a chemical level this way of looking at carbohydrates seems effective, although it does little to explain what happens to different carbohydrates once they enter your body. The starches in a donuts, French-fries and white bread are by definition are complex carbohydrates, although these carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar almost as fast as pure glucose itself. The sugar in fruit, fructose, is a simple sugar but has a small effect of blood sugar.

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What it does

A new system for classifying carbohydrates is the glycemic index (GI). All carbohydrates affect your blood sugar; you measure the effects of carbohydrates on you blood sugar level with the glycemic Index (GI). GI rates carbohydrates on how high and how quickly they boost blood sugar as compared to pure glucose. Those carbohydrates, like in white bread, that break down quickly during digestion, releasing glucose quickly into your blood, are considered to have a high glycemic index. Those carbohydrates like whole wheat, that release sugar more evenly over time has a low glycemic index. Foods with a score of 70 or higher are defined as having a high glycemic index; those with a score of 55 or below have a low glycemic index.

Low glycemic index (GI) foods:
• Help control type 2 diabetes
• Helps weight loss and weight control
• Reduces the risk of heart disease
• Reduces blood cholesterol
• Reduce hunger, keeping you feeling fuller for longer
• Prolong physical endurance

High glycemic index foods
• Re-fuel carbohydrate stores after exercise

There are many factors that determine the glycemic index of food
• Processing – refined grains that have had their outer bran and germ removed have a high GI than whole grains
• Type of starch – different forms of starches break down at different rates. Some, like potatoes are broken down and reach your bloodstream more quickly than some other starches. 
• Fiber content – as fiber cannot be broken down into simple sugars, it remains intact delivering less sugar into your blood and thus a lower glycemic index.
• Ripeness – Ripe fruit and vegetables tend to have more sugar and thus a higher glycemic index.
• Fat and acid content – the more fat or acid that a food contains, the slower the carbohydrates are converted into sugar and the lower the glycemic index.
• Physical form – finer ground grains are more rapidly digested thus they have higher glycemic index than course ground grains.

This is a new system of classification that is yet unproven by time. But the one thing that is known for sure is that a diet of whole-grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables, which all has a low glycemic index, all promote good health.

The Glycemic Index does not explain how much digestible carbohydrates a food gives you. Melon, for example, has a high glycemic index although in a serving the actual amount of carbohydrates is low. For this reason researchers developed a way to consider both the amount of carbohydrates in the food and the impact of those carbohydrates on your blood sugar levels. This measure is called the glycemic load. The glycemic load is the glycemic index multiplied by the amount of carbohydrates. In general a glycemic load greater than 20 is considered high, 11 to 19 falls in the medium range and 10 or under is a low glycemic load.

Use this glycemic index only as a general guide as in some situations it is ineffective. Some chocolate bars have a low glycemic index even though they are known to not be a healthy food. 

In all situations it is best to replace highly processed or refined grains, sugars and cereals with those that are whole grain or minimally processed. Potatoes, which were a preferred complex carbohydrate, should only be eaten in moderation as they have a high glycemic Index and Glycemic load.

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Where you get it

For good health it is best to get your carbohydrates from intact whole grains and cereals such as whole-grain bread, brown rice and whole-grain pastas. Try some of the less common and often very healthy grains like quinoa, amaranth, whole oats and bulgur.

Vegetal sources
Low Glycemic Load:
• High-fiber fruits and vegetables (not including potatoes)
• Bran cereals 
• Many beans and legumes, including chick peas, kidney beans, black beans, lentils, pinto beans 
• Doongara rice

Medium Glycemic Load:
• Pearled barley
• Brown rice
• Oatmeal
• Bulgur
• Rice cakes
• Whole grain breads
• Whole-grain pasta
• No-sugar added fruit juices
• Many other whole-grain products

High Glycemic Load:
• Baked potato
• French fries
• Refined breakfast cereal
• Sugar-sweetened beverages
• Jelly beans
• Candy bars
• Couscous
• White rice
• White-flour pasta

Animal Sources
• Milk contains the sugar lactose, one of the few animal sources of carbohydrates.

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Things to watch out for

People with diabetes or hyperglycemia (increased blood sugar levels) must be careful to monitor their blood sugar so that is not too high or too low or extended periods. One of the best ways to help maintain a regular blood sugar level is to avoid foods with high glycemic indexes, choosing foods with low GI instead.

Too Little
Many people have been turning to high-protein, low carbohydrate diets in the quest for quick weight loss. In the short term, 3 weeks or less, these diets can have dramatic effects, but beyond this the lack of energy in the diet can cause your metabolism to slow. This happens as your body is trying to protect itself against burning too many calories. The long-term effects of a non-carbohydrate diet can include reduced athletic performance, fatigue, brain damage and nephrotoxicity.

Too Much
A diet with excess amounts of high glycemic Indexed (GI) foods, those that cause rapid and strong increase in your blood sugar have been linked to:
• Increased risk of diabetes, 
• Heart disease 
• Obesity
• Age-related macular degeneration
• Ovarian infertility
• cool-rectal cancer

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How much you need


To reach your health goals and become healthy the most important step is to eat a well balanced diet of food from across all the food groups. 

This list is of recommended daily amount of each food group for an average person 19 to 50 years old with a low level of exercise (30minutes of less a day). If you are older you may need a little less, if you are younger, a little more and if you are very active even more food should be eaten. For more information on serving sizes see our special feature on Sizing Up A Serve.
Servings per food group:
• Whole Grains (Carbohydrates):  6 – 8 
• Meat and beans (Protein):  1 – 2 
• High quality fats: 1
• Dairy:     2 – 3
• Fruit: 2
• Vegetables: 5
• Water: 6

The following are the recommended serving sizes for carbohydrates:

A serving of carbohydrates should contain about 15 grams of carbohydrates. Examples of this include:
Bread, slice 1 
Muffin, small, 1
Rice, 1/2 cup
Pasta, 1/2 cup
Pancake, 1

The recommended dietary Intake** (RDI)

The recommended dietary Intake** (RDI) is the level of intake of nutrients considered adequate to meet the known nutrient needs of practically all healthy people.

Specific recommendations for each vitamin depend on age, gender, and other factors (such as pregnancy and general health). 

Recommended dietary Intake (RDI)    

0–6 months     60 (g/d) (AI) Adequate Intake
7–12 months     95 (g/d) (AI) Adequate Intake

1–3 years     130 (g/d)
4–8 years     130 (g/d)

9–13 years     130 (g/d)
14-18 years     130 (g/d)    
19–70+ years     130 (g/d)

 9–13 years     130 (g/d)
14-18 years     130 (g/d)    
19–70+ years     130 (g/d)

18-50     175 (g/d)
18-50     210 (g/d)

By far the best way to get your daily requirements of nutrients is to eat a balances diet that contains a wide variety of whole foods from all the food groups.  Note that processed foods are depleted of most of their nutrients.

**Many countries have equivalent recommendations although the RDI is accepted throughout the world as a valid source of information. These recommendations are based in scientific knowledge and are presented by the US National Academy of Sciences, US Institute of Medicine and the US Food and Nutrition Board.

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Harvard Medical School, The Nutrition Source, Carbohydrates: Good Carbs Guide the Way, http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/carbohydrates-full-story/index.html, retrieved 06/2009

University of Sydney, Home of the Glycemic Index, http://www.glycemicindex.com/, Retrieved 06/2009.

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Bratman, Steven, and David Kroll. Natural Health Bible. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1999.


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