The best and worst carbohydrates

WEIGHTY MATTERS: Not all carbs are created equal ...
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WEIGHTY MATTERS: Not all carbs are created equal ...

Poor old carbs, they have certainly copped a beating over the past few years.

Blamed for health issues ranging from obesity to neurological disorders, it is important to remember that we are talking about a humble grain or vegetable as opposed to a deadly virus that is "out to get us".

When it comes to carbs, there are two important things to remember. First, the body requires a certain amount of carbohydrate to fuel the brain and the muscles. Second, the issue is not carbs themselves but what humans do to them; it is the heavy processing that tends to strip carbs of essential nutrients, and it is the processing that leads to them being digested more rapidly than we would if we consumed them in their natural state.

So before you ditch all of the carbs from your diet, here are some of the best nutritionally, and a few that are best consumed occasionally.


Also known as pulses, this group includes beans and peas such as chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils and soybeans. They are a rich source of protein, fibre, iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium and essential fats and, traditionally, form the basis of several diets around the world. Often referred to as the protein of vegetarians, a ½ cup serving of legumes offers 6-8g of protein, as well as 10-12g of slowly digested, low GI carbs. Low GI carbs support long-term weight control as they help to control the release of the hormone insulin in the bloodstream. Lower insulin levels help to control fat metabolism, as well as hunger and appetite, supporting fullness after eating. While some people cannot tolerate legumes, for those who have no issue, adding a ½ cup serving of legumes to a meal achieves a perfect carb/protein balance via a nutrient-rich food group.


The less processed the cereal grain, the higher the nutrient content, and this is the case with oats. Packed full of protein (5g per ½ cup serve), magnesium, zinc and B group vitamins, a daily single serve of oats also provides a substantial amount of soluble fibre; the type of fibre known to help reduce blood cholesterol levels, and oats have one of the lowest GIs of all grains. Look for the coarsest oats, rather than the "quick cook" varieties and team with plenty of low fat milk and a little cinnamon rather than adding honey or sugar.


Rarely heard of a few years ago, quinoa is often referred to as a "superfood", with its high protein content and low GI, and is a seed as opposed to a grain. While quinoa has  several nutritional benefits, it is still a carbohydrate-rich seed with a similar nutritional profile to brown rice. With 19g of total carbs and 4g of protein per 1/2 cup serving, quinoa can be a great addition to salads or made into a side dish for casseroles and meat dishes. Quinoa is gluten-free, rich in iron, magnesium, fibre and zinc and is a good choice for vegetarians as it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. As with any carbohydrate-rich food, the key is to be mindful of portion sizes, and just ½ a cup of cooked quinoa is a serving. 

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Sweet potato

The rich colour of sweet potato or "kumara" is a strong indication of its high nutrient content, in particular, beta-carotene, an antioxidant that is converted into Vitamin A in the body. Sweet potato is also packed with vitamins B6 and C, fibre, Vitamin E and magnesium and is best cooked using a little extra virgin olive oil to maximise nutrient absorption. Per ½ cup serving, sweet potato contains 5g of fibre and 24g of carbohydrate. Even though the carbohydrates in sweet potato are low GI, the density of sweet potato means that you still need to be mindful of portions if weight control is your goal.


White rice

With a single cup of cooked short grain rice giving a massive 58g of total carbohydrate (two small slices of grain bread give 24g), you would want to burn a lot of calories if you include white rice in your diet in large quantities. White rice is milled and, as such, has the husk, bran and germ of the grain removed. Unfortunately, this processing also removes key nutrients, including B group vitamins, iron and several other minerals. Nutritionally, the biggest issue is an extremely high GI, which means rapid increases in blood glucose levels. High blood glucose levels are linked to weight gain and increase the risk of developing diabetes.

Mashed potato

Please notice that this specifically refers to mashed potato, not all potato. A roasted potato in its jacket can be a portion-controlled nutrient-rich carbohydrate addition to meals. Mashed potato, on the other hand, not only tends to have added fat, but removing the skin and concentrating the white potato leaves a high GI carbohydrate that is easy to overeat.

White bread

Similar in the way that white rice has been processed to an extent that the nutrient content is significantly reduced, so, too, is the case with white bread. The refined white flour that makes white bread not only lacks the nutritional density of a grain or even wholemeal bread, but white bread has an extremely high GI, meaning it is less filling and leaves individuals prone to fluctuating blood glucose levels. As bread is a staple food, it pays, nutritionally, to invest in the best quality foods you can, and when it comes to the nutritional quality of bread, you cannot go past grain bread. If you must choose white bread, at least invest in a good quality sourdough loaf, which has a lower GI than regular white bread.

Flaked and puffed cereals

With the exception of heavy bran-based flakes, as a general rule of thumb, if your breakfast cereal is a puff or a flake, it has been heavily processed, and adding back in all the vitamins and minerals processing originally removed does not make it a good choice nutritionally. Flaked or puffed cereals either tend to be high GI, quickly digested carbohydrates such as a cornflake or rice puff, or they have plenty of sugars and salts added to make them taste better. If you cannot see a wholegrain in your breakfast cereal, it is probably not a great choice, nutritionally

 - SMH Contributor


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