Want to lose some of the post-birth weight but still need bags of energy?
Monitoring your carb intake could be the answer.
If you’re confused by the ‘carb’ thing you are not alone. Proponents of regimes such as the paleo diet think we should avoid carbs like the plague, yet the Department of Health recommends basing our entire diet mostly around carbs. So are bread and potatoes really enemies of the waistline? If you need clarity, read on, and I’ll aim to tackle the subject as succinctly as I can.
A can of fizzy drink, a lettuce, sweet potato, apple, bowl of rice, spoon of sugar and loaf of bread all come under the ‘carb’ umbrella. What that means is, if they don’t already contain sugar just like the sugar in a can of coke or iced bun, they soon will once your digestive juices have had a chance to break the food down.
Carbohydrates fall into two main groups – complex and simple.
A simple carb is comprised of glucose and fructose. These combine to form the most abundant dietary carbohydrate in nature – sucrose. Sucrose is what gives many fruits their delicious sweet taste and which is refined from sugarcane into what we call SUGAR.
The complex carb group includes fibre, which cannot be digested, and starch which is a long chain of glucose. This chain of glucose is quickly broken down by our digestive enzymes into sugar.
The crux of the whole carb issue is that we want to prevent our insulin levels from rising too sharply. Insulin is the hormone our body releases after we’ve eaten some form of carbohydrate – it prevents our blood glucose levels from rising too sharply by ensuring the glucose gets into our cells where it is needed for energy. If we don’t use the energy then and there, the glucose gets shunted off to our muscles and liver to be stored for later on. If the muscles and liver exceed their storage capacity then the excess is shunted off to our fat cells.
Aside from the obvious problem of this causing weight gain, it also interferes with our cells’ ability to communicate with each other. In an ideal situation, once our cells are full they send signals to our brain – via a hormone called leptin – to tell us ‘We’ve had enough now, stop eating!’ Unfortunately if our cells are too clogged up and fatty, the signals can’t get through. So, you’ve guessed it, we just keep on chomping away, unawares, and so starts the cycle of over-eating. The more we eat, the less the signals can get through, so the more we eat …
The body really likes the carbohydrate which is present in non-starchy vegetables like greens. This is because green leafy veg also contains plenty of the indigestible complex carb – fibre. The presence of a large proportion of fibre literally slows down the rate at which the glucose is absorbed into the blood. Any kind of refined or processed carb is likely to be bad news as these are generally rapidly digested and absorbed into the blood, as they rarely contain much fibre. This includes sugary breakfast cereals, biscuits and cakes. The body will rarely need this amount of glucose in one go, so eating it will send blood glucose levels soaring and force the body to secrete excessive amounts of insulin which in turn will shunt the glucose into the fat cells to be stored for when the body has a deficit.
To delve deeper still into the carb thing it’s worth bearing in mind that starch is comprised of two molecules – amylose and amylopectin. Amylose is digested much more slowly than amylopectin so it stands to reason (remember the insulin issue) that if you want to avoid weight gain and maintain your energy levels its advantageous to stick to carbs which have a higher levels of amylose than amylopectin.
Wheat is the most commonly consumed grain in the UK (think biscuits, cakes, bread, breakfast cereals and sauces) and it predominantly contains amylopectin. If you’ve ever experienced a mid-afternoon energy-slump its normally down to your lunchtime sarnie causing soaring blood sugar levels, followed by a plunge a couple of hours later. If you regularly experience this try avoiding bread at lunchtime and aim to have a green leafy salad with some chicken, fish or tofu, for example, and see if you fare better during the afternoon.
Alternatively, foods high in amylose, which will give you a far steadier carb release, include basmati rice, beans and lentils. Beans and lentils also contain protein which slows glucose absorption even further.
Given that we need a steady supply of glucose for our brain to function, it seems ludicrous to attempt not to get an adequate supply into your diet – breast milk, for example, contains 40% carbohydrate to help babies’ brains to develop. Granted, most of us probably eat far too much in the way of carbs and it’s unlikely that basing our entire diet around carbs is particularly healthy. But most of us need some level of good quality starchy food, and probably listening to your body is the way forward. Sticking to mostly high fibre foods such as green leafy veg, and perhaps one or two portions of high starch foods daily such as oats, wholegrain basmati rice or sweet potatoes would seem sensible. You can then see how you go and take it from there – if you feel dreadful, add more in, if you feel OK take more out and see what happens. Our biochemistry is individual and unique and your body will soon let you know if it’s not appreciating what you’re putting into (or taking out of) it.
What accompanies your high-carb food is also crucial: If you eat them with a high fat or protein rich food such as nut butter or hummus, you’ll be slowing the rate which they’re absorbed into the blood stream so your body can use the energy from them at a nice, steady rate which prevents too much insulin from having to be produced and preventing any excess being stored as fat.
So, if you’re feeling the need to reach for the biscuit tin to go with your mid-afternoon cuppa, I’d think again. A biscuit, a very carb-dense food with no fibre, is going to send the levels of sugar in your blood sky-high and start the insulin, fat storage cycle-thing. If you choose something like an oatcake with some nut or seed butter, the carb from the oatcake is going to be released very slowly into the blood stream due to the generous levels of fats and proteins provided by the nut butter. This gives a nice steady release of glucose into the blood which will match your energy output, then low amounts of insulin will be needed, and therefore no fat storage. Perfect!
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