By Gabriele and Charlotte Fantelli

Carbohydrates are a great source of energy for our body. All carbs are turned into sugars and transported around our body in our blood, but we do need to be careful as not all carbs are the same.

It is up to the insulin to regulate how much of the sugar is assimilated by our cells and turned into energy. Should there be any excess sugars, they are turned into glycogen which is stored in our liver or turned into fat and stored around our body for future use (glycogen can then be turned back into sugars should we need more energy).

Can't too much be bad?

Too much carbohydrate in our day-to-day diet can negatively affect our blood sugar levels, leaving us feeling tired, irritated and generally disrupting our mood balance (see 'Blood sugar levels and mental health' below). 

Types of Carbohydrate

There are two types of carbohydrate: complex and simple. See our carbohydrates list for examples of each.

Simple carbs are also referred to as sugars and they can be found in their natural state in fruit and vegetables, and in their refined state in cakes, biscuits, jams, prepared and processed foods, soft drinks. Simple carbs are metabolised and released into our blood quicker, hence the instant energy boost which expires as quickly as it comes, often leaving us feeling more tired and “grumpy” than before.  They are also known to cause tooth decay.

Complex carbs are turned into sugars and released into our blood in a slower, steadier and more balanced manner. This should insure more stable and longer periods of energy which wouldn’t negatively affect our blood sugar levels and moods. Complex carbs are also referred to as starch or starchy foods. They are present in their natural state in many foods and in their refined state mainly in processed foods, although usually, the best way to provide our diet with a good quantity of them is to consume them in their most natural state.

Blood sugar levels and mental health

Blood sugar fluctuations can be an important factor in anxiety and mood disturbances. In short, when we eat a sugar/simple carbohydrate our blood sugar quickly goes up, our body then produces the insulin which drops our blood sugar quickly back down again creating a ‘crash’ or ‘slump’ in blood sugar which in turn can make our energy ‘crash’ or ‘slump’.

This crash can make us feel fatigued, light headed, affect our concentration and produce other symptoms akin to panic. This can very quickly trigger our fight or flight response. The symptoms intensify and the anxiety cycle is started.

A way you can combat the effects of this rollercoaster of blood sugar levels is to eat less simple carbs (sugars, white grains, processed starches) and eat more complex carbohydrates (whole grains) and protein (meats, fish, eggs e.t.c).

How much should we be eating?

Today’s advice states that we should get half our daily energy needs from carbohydrates. This usually translates in 275gm of carbs for adult men (48.5% of daily energy) and 203gm for adult women (47.7% of daily energy). Simple carbs/refined sugars should make up just 11% of our daily diet; however, research show that the average adult man has a daily intake of refined sugars of 13.6% and the average child’s of 16%!

We have all seen the amount of publicity that “low carb diets” have had over the years, it is actually interesting to know that carbohydrates have less calories than protein, fat and alcohol! 1g of carbohydrates contains, in fact, 3.75 calories against the 4 of protein, 9 of fat and 7 of alcohol!

Getting a balance

As we said before, the key to a good healthy diet and therefore a good healthy body/mind is balance. Carbs intake is no exception; also the type of carb we consume is very important as they are found in both natural and processed foods. Many foods high in sugars are usually high in fat contents or prepared with fat, therefore not really the healthier choice. Foods high in complex carbs are usually high in fibre content as well, which is also essential for the wellbeing of our digestive system and therefore our best choice.

Carbohydrate quick tips:

Eat a protein with carbohydrates to balance the blood sugar.

Aim for 40-50% of your calorie intake to be from carbs.

Try and decrease the amount of simple carbohydrates you consume.

Chose brown or unrefined carbohydrates wherever possible.

Remember: Carbs are an important part of your diet; they supply our body with nutrients and energy! Don’t cut them out; just use this guide to get the best from them..

This article has been adapted from Gabriele Fantelli's article in issue 3 of Uncovered magazine and Charlotte Fantelli's 'Overcome Anxiety' programme.

Relevant Books

Further reading

We hope you have enjoyed reading about healthy eating for the mind, why not learn more with our features online:

Carbohydrates list

Eating for the mind

The importance of B Vitamins

Mind Food - Omega 3, 6 and 9

Sources of Omega Fatty acids

Mind Food Recipes

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