Sunday, 16 March 2014

Why carbs are my best friend (and should be yours too!)

I feel sorry for the poor little carbohydrates. All they want to do is fuel our bodies by forming part of yummy meals, yet they keep getting crucified on all angles by anti-carb groups. Carbs make you fat, they say; carbs are just sugar and sugar is bad, they say; carbs didn’t exist in caveman times so we shouldn’t eat them, they say. But I’m here to tell you that carbs have countless benefits (if you choose the right ones) and it’s about time we started showing them the respect they deserve!

The importance of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates get broken down in the body to glucose, which is the fuel of choice of the brain, as opposed to fat or protein (think about trying to get your car to run on diesel when it actually needs unleaded petrol- not so efficient hey?). This glucose provides us with the energy needed to go to run a race, lift weights in the gym, scream our lungs out at a concert or just make it through a seemingly never-ending work day. It gives us the concentration to get through a whole day at school or uni and actually remember anything we were taught.

More than that, carbs come with fibre and a whole host of vitamins and minerals depending on exactly what they are. Which brings me too…

Bread is not the enemy!

What are carbohydrates?

It always surprises me the amount of people who don’t really know what carbohydrates are. They’re bread, pasta and potatoes right? Well actually they’re a lot more than that. Foods are a complex mix of macronutrients (like carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients (like vitamins and minerals for example calcium and iron). Carbohydrates are a macronutrient found in most foods, but in the largest quantities in breads, cereals, rice, pasta, flour, starchy vegetables like potato and corn, beans, legumes and lentils, dairy foods such as milk and yoghurt, and all fruits (fresh and dried).

I like to refer to the two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are things like white bread and rice, cereals like rice puffs and corn based flakes, cakes, pastries, lollies and table sugar. Complex carbohydrates are things like grainy breads, brown rice and pasta, barley, quinoa and other grains, chickpeas and lentils. And of course our dairy foods and fruits have a whole host of benefits too.

Yes, everything in this bowl is a carbohydrate: the
cereal, the milk and the fruit!

Benefits for weight loss

Studies show that people who eat 2-3 serves of wholegrain a day (see below for what this equates to in food) are more likely to:
  • Be a healthy weight
  • Be in a healthy waist circumference range
  • Have less body fat
Now why is this? Well wholegrains are the complex carbs I was talking about earlier and these foods tend to have a lower glycaemic index (or GI) meaning that they release glucose into your bloodstream more slowly keeping your blood sugar levels stable (which is important for diabetics) and helping you stay fuller for longer. One theory is that if you are feeling fuller for longer from wholegrains, then you’re less likely to overeat and to crave junk foods because you're already feeling satisfied.

Another theory, and one that relates to why low-carbohydrate diets are sustainable, is that as a society we are surrounded by carbs as many of our commonly consumed dishes contain them. Think spag bol, roast chook with potatoes, breakfast cereal or toast and the humble sandwich. When we tell ourselves we can’t have carbs, we have to turn down a lot of foods which can make us feel like we’re missing out, which certainly doesn’t help to form a healthy, long-term eating plan.

"Carbohydrates, in particular wholegrains, are associated with lower weights, longer lives and reduced risks of several diseases."

More benefits of carbs

Wholegrains also reduce the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Numerous studies have shown wholegrains to reduce cognitive decline, in particular the onset of disease such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Large long-term studies have also found that just 1-2 serves of wholegrains can reduce mortality rates by 20-25% (i.e. help you live longer!). They also promote a healthy gut by providing the full range of fibres (soluble, insoluble and beta-glucan).

So how much should you eat to reap the benefits?

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend adults eat 4-6 serves of grain foods. One serve is equivalent to:

This table was taken from the Australian Dietary Guidelines website: 

This may sound like a lot, but considering most people eat more than a ¼ C of muesli or ½ C of pasta in one sitting (measure it next time you serve yours up and you will be surprised!), you really only need to eat grains 2-3 times a day and you’re sorted! A bowl of cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, and some rice or pasta with dinner and you’ve met your target!

But remember, always choose wholegrain versions!

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