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Don’t let fear of carbohydrates cut into vegetable consumption

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018 3:38 PM

It is the season for corn, fresh vegetables and wonderful fruits. When I hear someone say, “Corn isn’t a vegetable! It’s all starch, I don’t eat it” or “I don’t eat anything white – it’s bad,” it just makes me shiver. What a shame!

We are told to eat plenty of vegetables, so why do corn and other starchy vegetables get such a bad rap? Vegetables get segregated into two categories: starchy (corn, potatoes, peas, carrots, beets and various other tubers) and non-starchy (leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers and mushrooms). Yes, starchy vegetables contain more carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables, so they increase your blood sugar at a quicker rate. But each one has unique nutrients that benefit your health.

Carbohydrates often get blamed for weight gain. What is a carbohydrate? Many have a fairly vague or misinformed understanding of the different types of carbohydrates, so let’s review.

They are compounds that provide our primary source of energy divided between simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (dietary fiber and starches). The difference between a simple and a complex carbohydrate is how quickly it is digested and absorbed.

Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, include table sugar, honey, corn syrup and the natural sugars found in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Wait, what? Fruit is a simple sugar? Aren’t simple sugars bad for us? Relax. Fruit also contains fiber that slows digestion and slows the spike in blood sugar hence the recommendation to eat fruit rather than drink the juice.

Complex carbohydrates, found in potatoes, corn, beans, rice and pasta, are starch or dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is not like other carbohydrates. Although the bacteria living naturally in your intestines convert very small amounts of dietary fiber to fatty acids, dietary fiber is not considered a source of energy because the bonds that hold its sugar units together cannot be broken by human digestive enzymes. Dietary fiber enhances movement of food through our bodies.

Starches are excellent sources of energy. They are long chains of glucose molecules that our bodies break into individual glucose molecules used for energy. Complex carbohydrates have three or more units of sugars, and your body takes longer to digest them than it takes to digest simple carbohydrates. As a result, digesting complex carbohydrates releases glucose into your bloodstream more slowly and evenly than digesting simple carbs.

So, back to our starchy vegetables. If starch is a complex carbohydrate, it is better for us than simple carbohydrates. Corn and potatoes are mostly starch and a good source of complex carbohydrates. Starchy vegetables contain more carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables.

For the average adult, consuming about 250 grams of carbohydrates a day (50 percent of calories coming from carbohydrates) provides the efficient source of fuel. A starting place for meals is to consume about 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates and another 15 to 30 grams for snacks. This translates to about one cup of starch (grain or starchy vegetable) with a lean protein and maybe a non-starchy vegetable as well as about one cup of fresh fruit; you’ll have a complete, nutritious meal.

We typically eat less than half the fiber needed (25 to 38 grams of fiber a day). Vegetables, both starchy and non-starchy, shine when it comes to fiber. A cup of corn contains 5 grams of fiber (13 percent of our daily needs) while one cup of broccoli or one cup of potatoes contain 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

It’s all about balance. Eating a variety of foods in proper portions ensures meeting daily needs for energy, vitamins and minerals.

Wendy Rice is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at wendy.rice@colostate.edu or 382-6461.Wendy Rice

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