There has been a lot of scepticism following the consumption of carbohydrates for a while now, more so with adults taking up the ‘keto’ and other diets, and trying to cut down or get rid of their carb intake. It's often suggested that carbs are fattening and this narrative is partly due to unhealthy, processed food which comprises higher amounts of carbohydrates as opposed to other macronutrients. In actuality, each gram of carbohydrate provides less than half as many calories as a gram of fat. For growing children, especially, carbohydrates form an essential part of a healthy balanced diet. Starchy and fibrous foods are an important source of nutrition for these are energy giving foods which keep them active longer and help them grow and develop. Thus, it is in fact advised that 50-60% of the child’s calories should come from Carbohydrates. What is important is to correctly understand the right portioning of these carbs, differentiating between the good and bad kinds of sources and planning diets accordingly.

What are the various sources of Carbohydrates?

  • Starchy foods – These include vegetables like peas, corn and potatoes. Grains like oats, ragi, wheat and rice. Dried beans and lentils like kidney beans and chickpeas.
  • Fibrous foods – These are included in fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, celery, carrots, broccoli, etc. Edible seeds such as dried pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, etc as well as in legumes and beans.
  • Sugars – Sugars naturally occur in some foods like milk and fruits which have lactose and fructose respectively. Added sugars in various things like sweets, syrups and juices.

Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

Simple Carbohydrates are those that contain just one or two sugars such as fructose (fruits), galactose (milk products), sucrose (table sugar), maltose (some fruits and vegetables), etc. They are also found in candies, sodas and syrup. However, these foods are made with processed and refined sugars and don’t contain any vitamins, minerals or fibre. Thus, they’re often called ‘empty calories’.

Complex carbohydrates have three or more sugars. They are often referred to as starchy foods and include beans, rice, peas, potatoes, corn, whole-grain breads and cereals. All carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, which are absorbed into the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin, which is needed to move sugar from the blood into the cells, where the sugar can be used as energy.

While all carbohydrates are energy sources, simple carbs cause bursts of energy much faster than complex carbs because of the quicker rate at which they are digested and absorbed. Simple carbs can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and sugar highs, while complex carbs provide more sustained energy. This brings us to the question of good and bad carbs.

Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs

As we all know carbohydrates are found in some healthy foods like vegetables as well as unhealthy foods like cakes. Thus, the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ carbs was formed. Understanding this difference is crucial to administering a healthy diet for your child’s development.

Bad carbs are usually refined foods made of simple carbohydrates, which as we learnt earlier, tend to be ‘empty calories. These are foods made with refined sugar and flour like pastries, white bread, soda, candies, etc. They have hardly any nutritional value.

Good carbs, on the other hand, are made of complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and wholegrains. These are processed slowly and thus retain most of their nutritional value and high in naturally occurring fibres. Basically, Complex Carbs are preferable to simple carbs.

Why are Complex Carbs preferred?

To understand this better, nutritionists have developed the glycemic index (or GI) which is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar (glucose) levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested, absorbed and metabolised and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar (glucose) levels. So, these would be our simple sugars.

Low GI carbohydrates – the ones that produce smaller fluctuations in your blood glucose and insulin levels, are found in complex carbohydrates that take a longer time to break down. For these complex carbohydrates, whole grains, like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain breads and cereals, are the way to go.

Diets rich in whole grains protect against diabetes and heart disease. Whole grains give your body more to break down, so digestion is slower. When carbs enter the body more slowly, it's easier for your body to regulate them. High-fibre foods are filling and help prevent overeating. When combined with plenty of fluid, they help move food through the digestive system to prevent constipation. They are also rich in vitamins and minerals.

Quality over Quantity and Portioning

Now that we can distinguish between beneficial foods and unhealthy carbs, we can see how it is not about cutting down on the carbohydrate but in fact shifting towards a diet rich with the healthier kind of carb foods and keeping the unhealthy ones as an occasional treat!

Avoiding overly refined foods will help decrease chances of obesity, diabetes and heart problems. Maintaining a healthy portioning of foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables will provide the host of nutrients which your child requires for a healthy childhood and promote proper growth and development.

Adequate portioning must be done according to your child’s age. Most school going children are advised to have to have 4-6 helpings of regular portioning. Following are some examples of healthy portioning:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 2 chapatis
  • Half cup cooked rice or pasta
  • 1 cup oats
  • 2 baby potatoes

Carbohydrates as a food group must not be feared! Cutting back on the carbohydrate intake of your child would mean interfering with his or her natural nutritional processes. Instead one must be weary to include all the right kinds of foods in the diet so your child has a nourished meal which not only leaves them feeling full and satisfied but also provides them with the energy they need to successfully carry out their daily activities. Good sources of energy keep a child active longer and promotes learning and playing as well as decreases lethargy and overeating. A carbohydrate inclusive diet is the way to go for healthy growth and development!