Often called carbs, carbohydrates are the body's
most important and readily available source of energy.
Even though they've gotten a bad rap in the 2000s
and have often been blamed for the obesity epidemic,
carbohydrates are a necessary part of a healthy diet
for both children and adults.
The two major forms are:
- simple sugars (simple carbohydrates), found
in sugars such as fructose, glucose, and lactose,
as well as in nutritious whole fruits
- starches (complex carbohydrates), found
in foods such as starchy vegetables, grains, rice,
and breads and cereals
So how, exactly, does the body process carbohydrates
and sugar? All carbohydrates are broken down into
simple sugars. These sugars are absorbed into the
bloodstream. As the sugar level rises, the pancreas
releases a hormone called insulin, which is needed
to move sugar from the blood into the cells, where
the sugar can be used as a source of energy.
The carbohydrates in some foods (mostly those that
contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such
as white flour and white rice) cause your child's
blood sugar level to rise more quickly than others.
Complex carbohydrates (found in whole grains), on
the other hand, are broken down more slowly, allowing
blood sugar to rise more gradually. Eating a diet
that's high in foods that cause a rapid rise in blood
sugar may increase a person's risk of developing health
problems like diabetes and heart disease, although
these studies have been done mostly in adults.
Despite the recent craze to cut carbs, the bottom
line is that not all foods containing carbohydrates
are bad for your child, whether they're complex, as
in whole grains, or simple carbohydrates, such as
those found in fruits. If carbohydrates were such
a no-no, we'd have a huge problem, considering that
most foods contain them. But, of course, some carbohydrate
foods are healthier than others.
Good sources of carbohydrates include:
- whole-grain cereals
- brown rice
- whole-grain breads
A healthy balanced diet for children over 2 years
should include 50% to 60% of the calories consumed
coming from carbohydrates. The key is to make sure
that the majority of carbohydrates your child eats
are from good sources and to limit the amount of added
sugar in your child's diet.
"Good" vs. "Bad" Carbs Carbohydrates have
taken a lot of heat in recent years. Why? Because
many medical experts think excess consumption of refined
carbohydrates (refined sugars found in foods and beverages
like candy and soda, and refined grains like white
rice and white flour, found in many pastas and breads)
are one reason behind the dramatic rise of obesity
in the United States.
But how could any one type of food cause such a big
problem? Of course, not exercising and eating larger
portions of any foods than we need take the lion's
share of blame for the obesity epidemic. But the so-called
"bad" carbs - sugar and refined foods - tend to be
significant contributors to excess calories. Why?
Because they're easy to get our hands on, come in
large portions, taste good, and aren't too filling.
People tend to eat more of these refined foods than
needed. And, often, foods like colas and candy provide
no required nutrients, so we really don't need to
eat them at all.
Now the 2005 dietary guidelines are pushing for Americans
to eat more unrefined (often called "good") carbohydrates
by saying that everyone - including kids and teens
- should increase whole-grain consumption and limit
their intake of added sugar. For children, at least
half of their grain intake should come from whole
grains. (The Food Guide Pyramid will be revised
soon to reflect the new dietary guidelines, which
are published every 5 years by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services.)
Whole grains certainly sound like the healthy way
to go. But what makes them so different than simple
carbohydrates? Whole grains are complex carbohydrates
(like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain breads
and cereals) that are:
- broken down more slowly in the body. Whole
grains contain all three parts of the grain (the
bran, germ, and endosperm), whereas refined grains
are mainly just the endosperm - and that means more
for your body to break down. More to break down
means the breakdown is slower, the carbohydrates
enter the body slower, and it's easier for your
body to regulate them.
- high in fiber. Not just for the senior-citizen
crowd, foods that are good sources of fiber are
beneficial because they're filling and, therefore,
discourage overeating. Plus, when combined with
adequate fluid, they help move food through the
digestive system and protect against gut cancers
- packed with other vitamins and minerals.
In addition to fiber, whole grains contain more
essential fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, and
zinc than their processed equivalents.
And if that's not enough, studies indicate that eating
whole grains reduces your long-term risk of cancer
and heart disease!