In defence of carbohydrates

13 Aug

If you’ve read Catherine’s bio you’ll have noticed it says she’s a biology geek, I’m afraid we weren’t joking. Over the next few weeks Catherine is going to be looking at carbohydrates, fat and protein; what they are and how our bodies use them (and why you should ignore anyone who tells you to cut any of them out of your diet!) She promises to try not to be too geeky – if she fails at that let her know in the comments below and she’ll try harder next time!
In the past few years carbohydrates seem to have been getting a bit of a bashing by the horrible dieting industry. Whilst they aren’t as popular as they once were there are still plenty of low-carb diets around, for example the Atkins diet and the Dukan diet, despite the fact that nutrition guidelines suggest that around 55-75% of the energy we get from food should come from carbohydrates. So why are carbohydrates so important and why should we be eating them?
What is a carbohydrate?
Let’s start by talking about what carbohydrates actually are. We can roughly divide carbohydrates into two groups which you might have heard of before – there are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. The simplest way to describe the difference is to think of them like Lego bricks; simple carbohydrates are made out of one or two bricks whilst complex carbohydrates are made up of loads of bricks, it can range from the hundreds to a couple of thousand, all stuck together.
Of course scientists have science-y sounding words for these bricks and they call them different things depending on how many bricks are stuck together. One brick on its own is called a monosaccharide (mono-sack-a-ride, mono meaning one), a carbohydrate made of two bricks is called a disaccharide (dye-sack-a-ride, di meaning two) and a big carbohydrate made of lots of bricks is called a polysaccharide (poly-sack-a-ride, poly meaning many).
Right, is anyone still there or have I lost you after all those long words?! I’m going to use some shorter ones now which you’ll have heard before. Mono- and disaccharides are commonly known as sugars and polysaccharides are the type of carbohydrate found in starchy foods. If you put everything I’ve told you together you’ll see that sugars (mono- and disaccharides) are simple carbohydrates and starchy foods contain complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides).
What do carbohydrates do in our bodies?
The carbohydrate that your body likes to deal with is the monosaccharide glucose, when you eat other di- and polysaccharides your body breaks them down into glucose. The cells in your body can then use the glucose for energy. And here’s the reason carbohydrates are so important: Glucose is the human body’s key source of energy. The reason glucose is so good is because your body finds it much easier to use glucose for energy than it does to use other energy sources like fats. I think that’s a pretty good reason to ignore anything telling you that you should restrict carbohydrates.
Glucose is especially important for your brain. Most of your other organs have a few back up sources of energy for when your glucose is low, but your brain much prefers glucose to anything else and only has one other energy source it can use (which we won’t get into now because I think we’ve had enough long words for one day!) Your brain needs a lot of energy and when it can’t get it you might find you have trouble concentrating, feel a bit tired and possibly even a bit grumpy or miserable. Not so good if you’re trying to study for tests and exams!
As well as keeping your brain fired up glucose is important for giving you the energy to exercise and do sports. Your muscles have a store of glucose in them, this is a source of energy which is immediately ready when you need it. Whatever sport you do –running, swimming, gymnastics, football, netball, cycling (to name just a few) – your muscles will be using up their stores of glucose and you need to make sure to keep them topped up so that you can perform at your best.
Have any of you been glued to the Olympics? There were lots of cheers in my house for the amazing, Tour de France winning Bradley Wiggins when he got his Olympic gold. He won’t have won those races on a low-carb diet! In fact, athletes who compete in endurance events like long cycle races or marathons will make an effort to maximise the amount of glucose they have stored in their muscles by eating loads of high carbohydrate foods in the days leading up to their races so that they have loads of energy stored up in their muscles ready to use.
What foods can I get carbohydrates from?
Hopefully you’re convinced that carbohydrates are a pretty important part of our diets so here’s just a few suggestions of where to find them.
Simple carbohydrates (sugars): I don’t think I really need to tell you where you can find sugar! But a few examples anyway – cake, biscuits, sweets, fruit and fruit juice.
Complex carbohydrates (starches): Bread, cereal, potatoes, pasta, rice.
Disclaimer: Catherine is only a biology geek, not a nutritionist, so take everything she says with a grain of salt (as you would your chips!). And remember – life is too short to worry about whether you’re hitting the recommended targets of every nutrient, food should be fun, not something to worry over.

Bread


Kneading bread dough is one of my favourite jobs in the kitchen. I haven’t explained how to do it here so if you don’t know you could ask a parent or friend if they know or just have a look on youtube. One day I’ll get round to writing an article about kneading!
500g strong white bread flour
7g sachet of dried yeast
10g salt
300ml warm water
Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Add the liquid and mix together until you get a rough dough if it’s very dry you can add a small amount of water.
Tip the dough onto a clean work surface which has been dusted with flour and knead it until it’s smooth, this will take around 10 minutes by hand, add a bit more flour if it seems too wet.
Put the dough into a large oiled bowl and cover it with cling film. Leave for around an hour to an hour and a half until the dough has doubled in size.
Now for the fun part, punch your dough to get the air out of it and then tip it back onto the work surface. Shape your dough however you like, you could make a round loaf, a baguette shape or put it in a loaf tin like I did. Leave it to rise for another 30 minutes. While the bread is rising preheat the oven to 220°C.
Bake for 30 minutes. The bread should sound hollow if you tap it on the bottom when it’s cooked through. If it seems to be browning too quickly but not cooking through you can turn the oven down to 180°C and cover the bread with foil.

About the writer: Catherine is a biology geek by day and cake baker by night. When she’s not in the kitchen you’ll be able to find her writing, tending to her tomato plant or curled up reading one of her many cookbooks.

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