The Role of Carbohydrates

The Role of Carbohydrate | by Kelly Francis | Registered Dietitian


Many people are under the false impression that carbohydrates (carbs) are limited to bread, rice, pasta and potato when in fact we should not view carbs as a food group at all. Carbohydrate is a nutrient rather, found in many foods, and while carbohydrates are often blamed for weight gain, it is more likely to be the underestimation of carbohydrate intake that is the true culprit.

While many foods contain carbohydrates as part of their nutrient profile, not all carbohydrate containing foods are nutritious or health promoting. We do need carbohydrate and if we get them it appropriate sources in appropriate quantities, it will not be problematic.


The role of carbohydrate

Carbohydrate is an important nutrient for a number of reasons but most notably, it is the primary energy source for the body and specifically preferred by the brain for use as fuel. In addition to being an efficient energy source for growing, learning and physical activity (including play), carbohydrate containing foods should be consumed as part of the daily diet because:

  1. Wholegrains, legumes, vegetables and fruits are excellent sources of fibre, absent in meat and fat
  2. Carbohydrate energy spares protein for muscles synthesis and tissue repair. Using protein for energy can lead to muscle wasting or poor muscle growth
  3. The absence of carbohydrate often leads to an excessive protein intake which is not advised
  4. The probiotic bacteria in the gut thrive on carbohydrate as fuel rather than protein
  5. Insufficient carbohydrate can lead to hypoglycaemia resulting in poor concentration and school or work performance


The importance of fibre

Eliminating carbohydrates automatically eliminates much needed dietary fibre. An adequate intake of fibre promotes optimal blood glucose regulation, improves satiety between meals, supports healthy gut bacteria, prevents constipation, reduces cholesterol levels and maintains gut health. Given that the gut speaks more to the brain than the brain speaks to the gut, fibre has an essential role and should not be removed from the diet.


Sources of Carbohydrate

Wholegrains | rolled oats, brown rice, whole wheat kernels, barley, bulgar wheat, wholewheat samp

Wholegrain products | bran cereals, wholewheat bread, wholewheat crackers, popcorn

Starchy vegetables | potatoes, sweet potato, [corn, beetroot, butternut, carrots, green peas]

Fruit | all fruit, fruit juices

Legumes | lentils, split peas, chickpeas, dried beans, canned beans

Milk & Milk products | milk, yoghurt, sweetened milk, sweetened yoghurt, drinking yoghurt

Refined grains & products | instant oats, white flour, white bread, white bread rolls, white rice, puffed

rice, white crackers, rice cakes, rice crackers, maize, cornflakes, muffins,

cakes, sweet biscuits, pastry, corn chips, cereal bars

Sugar | brown/white sugar, sweets, chocolates, sugar containing beverages (including flavoured water,

iced tea and juice concentrates), syrup, jam, baked products, ice cream, sugar coated cereals,

cereal bars, drinking yoghurt, flavoured yoghurt, puddings


Choosing nutritious sources of Carbohydrate

Including carbohydrates as part of a healthy diet is both essential and possible. All sources of carbohydrate need to offer nutrient benefit in addition to the energy they supply. This benefit is usually in the form of fibre, vitamins and minerals. These nutrients are stripped away when wholegrains are highly refined to produce foods with a fluffy or smooth texture such as bread, cakes or crackers.

Use this check list to when choosing a carbohydrate source for a meal or snack. Healthy carbs:

  • Contain 6 g or more fibre per 100 g product
  • Are naturally brightly coloured
  • Occur naturally in nature
  • Can be identified by “high fibre”, “wholegrain” or “wholewheat” on food labels
  • Do not contain added sugar or salt that can be seen or tasted
  • Are never fried
  • Retain their peel
  • Are minimally processed for improved edibility


Health carbohydrate sources should be included in all meals and snacks for optimal growth, health and mental support.

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