Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients in our diets that provide calories. The other two are protein and fat. Carbohydrates provide most of the energy needed in our daily lives, both for normal body functions such as heartbeat, breathing and digestion and for exercise. Carbohydrates are considered simple or complex based upon their chemical structure. Both types are broken down into a blood sugar called glucose, which is then used to fuel our bodies for work or exercise.
Simple carbohydrates are essentially simple sugars and they are generally found in refined foods, sugary beverages, like soda, and most fruit juices, most baked goods, white breads/pastas, and candy. They are considered simple because they are digested and out of the system quickly and are really nothing more than sugar, containing no substantial amount of fiber, vitamins or minerals. Avoid these foods as often as possible. To help yourself remember this important health tip, think of this mantra: “If it’s white, it ain’t right.” This applies to the “white menaces,” namely refined sugar, refined salt, white breads, pasta, white rice, etc.
Complex, or unrefined, carbohydrates take longer to digest, thereby providing you with more sustained energy and are usually loaded with more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They keep you feeling full longer, you have more energy and for a longer period of time. Complex carbs include vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
Humans have been cultivating whole grains for thousands of years. In the Americas, corn was the staple grain. In India and Asia, it was rice. In Africa, people ate sorghum. In the Middle East, they used wheat to make pita bread, tabouli and couscous. In Europe, corn, millet, wheat, rice, pasta, dark breads and even beer were considered health-providing foods. In Scotland, oats were a staple food. In Russia, they ate buckwheat or kasha. In general, people were a healthy weight and free from diseases that pervade our current society: cardiovascular disease, diabetes type II, and cancer.
That’s due, in part, to the fact that they were eating WHOLE grains, not the refined, processed, nutrient-void grains and grain by-products of today. Whole grains are an excellent source of nutrition, as they contain essential enzymes, iron, dietary fiber, vitamin E and B-complex vitamins. Because the body absorbs grain slowly, they provide sustained and high-quality energy.
Experiment with different types of whole grains to see which ones best benefit your body, your palate, and the amount of time you have. Different grains take different amounts of time to cook, also depending on whether or not they need to be soaked prior to cooking. Brown rice is an excellent source of nutrients, but it does contain something called phytic acid, which can bind to calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc in the body, preventing them from being absorbed by the body. Soaking brown rice in water that completely covers overnight is an effective way of removing the phytic acid, while leaving intact all of its nutrients.
Quinoa is another great whole grain to try. A South American staple, quinoa contains eight grams of protein per serving, making it an excellent vegetarian protein source. It’s nutty and fluffy, which lends itself to a number of savory and sweet dishes. Also, it only requires a quick rinse under cold water, and only takes about 15 minutes to cook, making it a quick and healthy dish.
Other whole grains to experiment with include buckwheat, oats, amaranth, barley, bulgur, cornmeal, couscous, kamut, millet, rye berries, spelt, wheat berries, and wild rice. See which works best for you and enjoy!