Carbohydrates (carbs for short) can sometimes get a bad press. So this month Lisa discusses: what are good carbohydrates in a plant-based diet?
What are carbohydrates?
In short, carbohydrates are molecules that are needed by the body for healthy function. They are a macronutrient (together with protein and fat), which means the body must have quite a lot of them. Carbs are essentially the sugars, starches and fibre found in the food that we eat. Our bodies use these elements to convert into energy, meaning that carbs are one of the main sources of energy for our body. Carbs allow the muscles to work and also powers the brain and nervous system.
On a scientific level, the name “carbohydrates” comes from the chemical composition –carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
What are good carbohydrates?
Not all carbs are created equal!
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. This classification tells us how the body converts the sugars contained in the food item into energy.
Simple carbs consist of one or two sugars and are converted into energy quickly – meaning that after eating a food containing simple carbs, we get a sudden burst of energy, with a quick peak, followed by a quick drop or slump in energy. Fruits are a good example of food stuffs that are simple carbs – the sugars are mostly fructose.
Complex carbs are food stuffs that contain three or more sugars. The body takes a longer time to digest and absorb this, meaning that energy released from eating complex carbs is more stable – there would be a small steady rise in energy, which would continue more consistently for a longer period of time. Having a steady source of energy is better for our bodies.
You can read more about the effect of sugar on the body in our earlier article: sugar- the highs, lows and alternatives.
“Good carbs” are essentially the food items that are classed as complex carbs and you are advised by most nutritionists to include a source of good carbs in your daily diet.
Good sources of complex carbs include:
• Wholegrains – like brown rice, quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat
• Fresh vegetables
• Fresh fruit, particularly bananas
• Peas, beans (like pinto or black beans), chickpeas
There´s an interesting article from Harvard which explains in more detail the difference between types of carbohydrates (external link).
Remember, if the body does not get enough carbohydrates as fuel for the body, then it can start to try to convert it from protein. You body does need carbs. The guidelines vary between countries and depend on your age, gender, body type and lifestyle. As a general rule of thumb most adults should get roughly 40%-60% of their calorie intake from carbs (roughly 200-300 grams per day) – slightly less if you want to slim down (15%-30%) or if you are diabetic or have blood sugar problems.
What are bad carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates coming from some food items are not so good for you – they create peaks and slumps in energy, plus are usually higher in calories and fat, whilst containing little or no vitamins and minerals. This includes things like:
- Bread (most bread, but particularly white processed loaves)
- Pasties and pastries
- White sugar, honey
- White pasta
- Crisps, nachos
- Chips / French fries
- Sweets and soda drinks
If you do eat bread, pick a wholegrain loaf instead of white. The same rule applies to pasta.
To make it easier, when you are shopping at the supermarket pick foods that are close to how they come out from the earth and avoid processed items (things with a label on their packet!).
What about potatoes?
At the retreat, we serve potatoes once or twice per week. Potatoes are classed as a complex carb however they react in our body more like a simple carb – you experience a peak in energy as the sugars are quickly converted into energy, then there is a slump. The method of cooking can affect the rate of digestion (and therefore the rate of energy release), so a jacket potato is better (energy-wise) than French fries. Compared to things like pasties, donuts, and most bread, I would choose potatoes, but if you do want to bring more variety into your diet and find a more sustainable source of energy I would suggest reducing the amount of potatoes that you eat. Potatoes do contain vitamins and minerals, so for me, it’s all about balance.
Sweet potatoes are a good alternative, as the sugars and starches are digested and released much more slowly, giving you longer lasting, smooth energy.
Plant-based carbohydrate recipe ideas
This month´s recipe is our fabulous gluten-free buckwheat salad. There are lots more recipes you can try on our website including:
- Moroccan Sweet potato salad
- Amaranth porridge
- Curried millet salad
- Sweet potato chocolate brownie
- Hormone balancing brown rice salad
- Lentil shepherds pie with sweet potato and parsnip mash
- Millet burgers
Plant-based food at La Crisalida Retreats
Here at the retreat we always offer a dish that contains some of the “good” carbs at each meal time. We like to offer a balanced menu, with variety and so you can try different types of carb dishes. Read more about food at La Crisalida here. Each week we offer a cooking demo at the retreat, so you can learn more about how to cook delicious plant-based meals. Try one of our detox and weightloss retreats. Find balance in your diet and in your life.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).