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Your health: Carbs and fibre explained

People often find themselves confused about carbs and fibre, and how much they should be getting in their diet. Here is an explanation if the different forms of carbohydrates and foods you should consider adding to your diet, and some facts on fibre.

Carbohydrates are often called starchy foods, and are more easily broken down by the body than protein and fat. It should make up about 40% of your diet, with every meal containing carbohydrates. The body uses carbohydrates as its primary energy source and it contains nutrients such as fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

There are two types of carbohydrates: refined and unrefined.

Refined carbohydrates are white rice, white bread and white pasta. These types of carbohydrates are processed to have the husk of the grain removed. By removing the husk, however, you are removing many nutrients. Refined carbs are easily broken down by the body into glucose, which sometimes results in a sugar rush.

When choosing carbohydrates, it is best to look out for ones that are ‘unrefined’ like wholemeal flour, whole wheat, spelt, rye, barley, rolled oats and oatmeal. Wholegrains have little processing and are harder for the body to break down so make you feel full longer. They are high in B vitamins, help maintain a healthy skin, nervous system and aid energy production.

When the grain is harvested it contains three parts, the ‘fibre-rich’ outer layer (bran), the starchy middle (endosperm), and the ‘nutrient-packed’ germ. For a food to be called ‘wholegrain’, at least 51% of its ingredients must contain grains with all three parts remaining.

There are plenty of carbohydrates to choose from, and it’s important to try to vary the carbohydrates you eat so you don’t overload on one type.

What are other examples of carbohydrates?

Rice is a popular alternative to pasta and there are lots of varieties to choose from:

Fibre, which is soluble or insoluble, is another component of food which is mainly found in cereals, beans, lentils, fruit and vegetables.

The term dietary fibre describes a number of different categories of substances such as non-starch polysaccharides, oligosaccharides and lignin. Fibre cannot be broken down by digestive enzymes but micro-organisms that live in the large intestine are able to digest it. Fibre helps prevent constipation and helps lower blood cholesterol and/or glucose levels.

Soluble fibre contains gums and pectins, which help to reduce cholesterol and regulate blood sugar. All fruit and vegetables contain fibre, but some have more than others, such as apples, pears and citrus fruits. Insoluble fibre contains cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. It helps the bowel pass food and can help relieve constipation. It is found in wholegrain cereals, lentils and fruit with edible seeds.

In the UK, most people do not eat enough fibre. The average adult intake is 12 grams per day, while the recommended level is 18 grams. A low fibre intake is associated with constipation and some gut diseases such as diverticulitis and bowel cancer. Foods and food products that contain 6g fibre per 100g or 100ml may be labelled as a ‘high fibre’ food.