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Carbohydrates, or Carbs, are a hot diet topic, but why all the fuss?

There was a time when everyone was told to eat plenty of bread, rice and potatoes and to worry more about fat than sugar. But now studies have grown and we're in an outbreak of obesity and diabetes, most of the nutrition experts are saying you can have too much of a good thing, and we need to be more cautious about the type and quantity of carbohydrates we eat.

C for Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates (carbs) are one of the four nutrients in food that provide energy to stimulate the body. Carbs can be classified into two main groups:sugars and starches. Starches are made up of lots of sugar molecules stuck together, and so when digested, both starches and sugars produce sugar in the body. Sugar produced by eating carbs is sent around the body in the blood and can be measured by a Blood sugar level.

What do Carbs do?

Carbs are the body's principal fuel, a bit like petrol in a car. Carbs give us energy to work our heart, lungs, kidneys, brain and muscles. Carbs are particularly important to fuel the brain, helping us to think clearly and to balance our mood, as well as to power muscles during exercise.

Will you turn fat with Carbs?

Any food can be stuffing if you overeat. It doesn't seem to matter a whole lot whether your food is high in fat or carbs, but how much you eat in total Having said that, Carb quality is also significant to help keep weight down, and some Carb foods seem to be more fattening than others. Studies have shown that drinking a lot of soft drinks and eating a lot of desserts is associated with weight gain, but eating wholegrain foods seems to keep the weight off. There are studies showing too many high GI (GI explained below) carbs (like white bread, rice and potatoes) may be unhelpful in the fight against flab, especially in people who are already obese with high blood sugar levels. To prevent weight gain, a food's 'filling power' is also important so you can eat less without feeling hungry. High protein foods and low GI carbs tend to be good fillers.

Are carbs bad for the heart?

Saturated fat has long been considered the baddie for your heart but we now know too many high GI carbs are just as risky. This means low fat, high carb diets are not the best for looking after your heart and we should be looking to replace saturated fat in the diet with quality carbs like low GI, high fibre and wholegrain foods.

What about low-carb?

Low-carb mania has resulted mainly from fad-diet books, however there has been research activity in this area as well. Several studies have been published in reputable scientific journals showing the effectiveness of low-carb diets for weight loss, which has challenged the traditional high carb advice. What's not known is the long-term effects of such diets, and there are certainly good reasons to think low-carb diets are not a healthy way of life because they restrict health-protecting plant foods such as grain foods, vegetables and fruits.

What has been shown is that weight loss can be achieved in a healthier way using a less extreme moderate carb approach. The good old low-fat diet with a little more lean protein and a little less carbs has been shown to work well for weight loss and for lowering cholesterol and blood sugars.

Type of carbs: the glycemic index (GI)

You can't talk about carbs without mentioning the glycemic index (GI). The GI is a way of comparing different carbs by ranking their effect on blood sugar levels. High GI carbs cause a rapid rise and decline in blood sugars, whereas low GI carbs have a more gradual and longer lasting effect. Moderate GI carbs are somewhere in the middle. There are proven benefits of low GI foods for people with diabetes (who struggle to keep their blood sugar and insulin levels down at a normal level), however including more low GI foods has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing diabetes as well. A low GI diet might also help with weight control as low GI foods tend to be more satisfying, and also appears to reduce the risk of heart disease. Being more selective about carbs and favouring those with a low GI has now become part of healthy advice for everyone.

What is Glycemic Load (GL)?

GL is not used as often as GI, but you may come across it. While the GI is a comparative rating, the GL tells you how much sugar is released into the blood after eating a given quantity of food: GI is about carb quality, while GL is a combination of carb quality and quantity. The GL of a food is the GI (%) multiplied by the amount of carbs (in grams) in a single serving. A low GL is good and a high GL is less desirable. A diet with a low GL appears to be protective against weight gain and lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Portion size matters!

Just because a food has a low GI, it doesn't mean you can eat as much as you like. Equally, high GI foods don't have to be off-limits, just go easy and enjoy in moderation. Overeating any food can cause weight gain, and overeating any carbs over the long term can disrupt your body's metabolic balance.

Generally speaking good carbs are those that are low GI, high fibre or wholegrain but a good overall question to ask yourself is, how nutritious is the food? Sugary foods such as lollies and soft drinks have often been called 'empty kilojoule' foods because they don't offer much else besides pure energy, whereas sugar-containing foods, such as fruit and milk, and starchy foods like bread and pasta - especially wholegrain types - offer other nutrients as well such as protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. For a healthy diet, choose the good carbs with more nutritional value.

Insulin.. what's that?

Insulin is a hormone that has many functions in the body, but a major one is to move sugar from the blood into every cell in the body to do its work, and to store the energy for later use. It's often called the storage hormone for this reason. It's thought that having too much insulin in the body causes weight gain because the body is in 'storage mode'.

Are you Diabetic?

Diabetes is a condition where blood sugar levels become too high because insulin doesn't work properly (type 2), or the body stops making insulin (type 1). Type 2 diabetes is the most common and often involves too much insulin in the body as it struggles to pump out more insulin to make up for its lack of effect.

Foods which are high in Carbs?

Foods high in carbs are starchy foods or foods containing sugars. Sugars can be added as an ingredient, or occur naturally (such as in fruit and milk). Foods with a lower percentage of carbs often have a high water content (eg. potato and lemonade).

Choosing lower GI carbs

Lowering the GI of your diet is as simple as swapping a high GI food for a lower GI alternative and it can taste just as good.

Higher GI food

  1. Mash potato

  2. Jasmine rice

  3. White bread

  4. Orange-flavoured soft drink

  5. Jelly beans

  6. Rice pasta

  7. Boiled potato

  8. Rice cracker

Lower GI alternative

  1. Sweet potato

  2. Basmati rice

  3. Multi-grain bread

  4. Orange juice, unsweetened

  5. Dried apricots

  6. Regular spaghetti

  7. 4 bean mix

  8. Rye crispbread

Classification of GI

  • LOW - 55 or less

  • MEDIUM - 56-69

  • HIGH - 70 or more

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