Carbohydrates are the body's most important and readily available source of energy. Even though they've gotten a bad rap lately and are sometimes blamed for obesity, carbs are a necessary part of a healthy diet for both kids and adults.
The two major forms of carbs are:
- simple carbohydrates (or simple sugars): these include fructose, glucose, and lactose, which also are found in nutritious whole fruits
- complex carbohydrates (or starches): found in foods such as starchy vegetables, grains, rice, and breads and cereals
So how, exactly, does the body process carbs and sugar? 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.
The carbs in some foods (mostly those that contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such as white flour and white rice) are easily broken down and cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly.
Complex carbs (found in whole grains), on the other hand, are broken down more slowly, allowing blood sugar to rise more gradually. 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 kids, whether they're complex (as in whole grains) or simple (such as those found in fruits). If carbs were such a no-no, we'd have a huge problem since most foods contain them.
Still, some carbohydrate-dense foods are healthier than others. Healthy sources of carbohydrates include:
- whole-grain cereals
- brown rice
- whole-grain breads
- low-fat dairy
For kids over 2 years old, a healthy balanced diet should include 50% to 60% of calories consumed coming from carbohydrates. The key is to make sure that the majority of these carbs come from good sources and that added sugar in their diet is limited.
"Good" vs. "Bad" Carbs
Carbohydrates have taken a lot of heat in recent years. Medical experts think consuming too many refined carbs — such as the refined sugars in candy and soda, and refined grains like the white rice and white flour used in many pastas and breads — have contributed to the dramatic rise of obesity. (Of course, not exercising and eating overly large food portions are key parts of the obesity.)
How could one type of food cause such a big problem? The "bad" carbs (sugar and refined foods) are easy to get, come in large portions, taste good, and aren't too filling. So people tend to eat more of them than needed. And some are not needed at all — foods like colas and candy provide no required nutrients; instead, they add only "empty calories."
But this doesn't mean that all simple sugars are bad. Simple carbs are also found in many nutritious foods — like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, which provide a range of essential nutrients that support growth and overall health. Fresh fruits, for example, contain simple carbs but also have vitamins and fiber.
- Break 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 digestion is slower, the carbs enter the body slower, and it's easier for your body to regulate them.
- Are 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. Diets rich in whole grains protect against diabetes and heart disease. Plus, when combined with adequate fluid, they help move food through the digestive system to prevent constipation and may protect against gut cancers.
- Provide vitamins and minerals: In addition to fiber, whole grains contain other important vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, magnesium, and iron.
Sizing Up Sugar
Foods that are high in added sugar (soda, cookies, cake, candy, frozen desserts, and some fruit drinks) tend to also be high in calories and low in other valuable nutrients. As a result, a high-sugar diet is often linked with obesity. Eating too many sugary foods also can lead to tooth decay.
The key to keeping sugar consumption in check is moderation.
Instead of serving foods that are low in nutrients and high in added sugar, offer healthier choices, such as fruit — a naturally sweet carbohydrate-containing snack that also provides fiber and vitamins that kids need.
One way to cut down on added sugar is to eliminate soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
Making Carbs Part of a Healthy Diet
Making sure that kids get a balanced, nutritious diet isn't as hard as it may seem. Simply make good carbohydrate choices (whole grains, fruits, veggies, and low-fat milk and dairy products), stock your home with healthy choices, limit foods containing added sugar (especially those with little or no nutritional value), and encourage kids to be active every day.
Above all, be a good role model. Kids will see your wholesome habits and adopt them, leading to a healthier lifestyle throughout childhood and into adulthood.