Do children and young people need carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates have a bad press. What comes first to mind are cakes, pastries, pies, pizza, doughnuts, chips, confectionery and of course sugary drinks. There’s no dispute that this list doesn’t provide many nutritional benefits and are high in calories, fat, sugar and sodium.  Recently in a council funded telephone survey some headteachers felt that an excessive proportion of carbohydrates are being served at school meals. But that’s only one side of the story.

Children and young people need carbohydrates to give them a constant supply of fuel to help them grow and carry out daily activities and exercise. Waltham Forest Catering plan their menus to provide the right balance. Starting the day with some carbohydrates at breakfast keeps students fuller throughout the day, giving their brains fuel right away, with any extra energy stored until it’s needed. Carbohydrates combat tiredness or fatigue, poor mental function and a lack of endurance or stamina and play a vital role in ensuring the brain, heart, nervous, digestive and immune systems work correctly. 

However, since carbohydrates are all treated in the same way by the body, it’s important to choose carbohydrate foods that also contain other nutrients to benefit from a healthy and balanced diet. This ensures the body is not simply being provided with sugar but with other nutrients that it also requires to function. It’s argued that eating a high-nutrient diet can make you more satisfied with less food and can enable you to enjoy food more without overeating. 

Cereals and bread are higher in fibre and can provide more nutritional value. Starchy vegetables such as potato, corn, parsnip, sweet potato and pumpkin all contain carbohydrates and are also a good source of fibre as well as nutrient-rich foods that contain many other vitamins and minerals. Legumes such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils are an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, iron and folate. Dairy products contain a carbohydrate called lactose. These products are nutrient-rich contributing high calcium and protein to the diet.

In 2015 the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), a committee of independent experts was requested by the government to provide clarification of the relationship between dietary carbohydrate and health and make public health recommendations. Subsequently the School Food Standards 2015 stated that there is a need for a substantial amount of starchy carbohydrates.

A recommendation is one or more portions of starchy food to be served daily for a school meal, alongside a daily serving of bread. The British Nutrition Foundation recommended that at least half the energy in our diets should come from carbohydrate, mostly as starchy carbohydrates. Therefore, it’s advisable to ensure that this food group needs to be given prominence when school menu planning. As evidence shows carbohydrates aren’t always the bad guys.