If you’re tired of hearing the labels low-carb, no-carb, zero-grains and feeling puzzled, its time to stop listening, drop the labels and eat for health. Losing sight of dietary balance, opting for the wrong kind of carbohydrates and avoiding carbohydrates altogether is arguably contributing to the current obesity epidemic. There is disconnect between the physiological mechanisms for maintaining energy balance and the increasing popularity of high-sugar, convenience foods in replace of high fibre, energy promoting foods. Carbohydrates play a key role in the diet and are a dietary necessity for a healthy body and mind.
Down-side to Low-Carbs
Our body seeks balance and tries to maintain homeostasis, “stability, standing still.” When we deprive it of the fuel it needs to operate, it rebels by enlisting alternative coping mechanisms. This places strain on other areas of the body, for instance:
- Stress Response: when our carb supply is low, our blood sugar levels take a dive and to compensate our stress hormone cortisol raises. Whilst this may seem ok at the time, prolonged raised cortisol can cause our natural stress response to burn out and leave us feeling drained. Too much cortisol is also linked to weight gain, hormone havoc, anxiety and sugar cravings.
- Exercise: carbs are important for exercise performance, muscle repair and replenishment of energy stores. Working-out without adequate carbs can cause break down of muscle tissue, which can lead to a lower metabolic rate, making it harder to maintain weight.
- Mental Clarity: the brain is a very energy hungry organ and requires a constant supply of energy. Carbs are needed at each meal to fuel this supply; otherwise we are left lacking concentration and short-term memory recall.Nutrient supply: complex carbs especially starchy vegetables are a concentrated source of Vitamin A and C, beta-carotene, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6 – all assisting energy production, stress handling, skin, nail and hair health, immune function and anti-oxidant support.
Just like most things, carbs are not equal and do not have the same effect on our body. A useful way to think about carbs is by how fast they break down into sugar after ingestion:
- Simple carbs: composed of 1 or 2 sugar units are broken down and digested quickly;
- Complex carbs: made up of many sugar units, found in both nature and refined forms and digested slowly; and
- Non-digestible carbs: unable to be broken down into small enough units for absorption, passing straight to our colon.
To offer a more precise explanation of how carbs affect our blood sugar, the glycaemic index (GI) and glycaemic load (GL) were introduced:
- GI ranks carbs on how quickly they break down into sugar in the blood; high (>70) quickly, moderate (55-70) slower and low (<50) slow release.
- GL looks at the affect foods have on blood sugar levels and also considers quality and quantity of carbs, high (<20), medium (11-19) and low (<10).
High-GI & Simple Carbs
Simple carbs or high GI foods include cakes, biscuits, jam, chocolate, soft drink and some muesli bars etc. High-GI foods are known to increase hunger and cause energy dips. They often do not contain much fibre nor vitamin and minerals. As they are broken down fast, when eaten in excess they are more likely to be stored as fat. It is best to avoid foods with a high GI/GL.
Low GI & Complex Carbs
Complex carbs or low GI foods include quinoa, oats, vegetables, legumes, spelt and grainy bread. Low GI carbs increase satiety, stabilise blood sugar and are known to reduce overall energy intake. They are fibre rich and often contain healthy amounts of B-vitamins, another reason they are such a good source of energy.
Non-digestible carbs stand-alone when it comes to health benefits and include; green bananas, butter beans, cooled and cooled rice and potato. When non-digestible carbs are consumed, they undergo fermentation by colonic microbes, which results in a wide range of benefits such as improved body composition, blood sugar regulation, cholesterol levels, reduced body weight and colon cancer risk.
Picking the Best Fuel
If maintaining energy levels, mental clarity and healthy body composition is your target, the first step is cutting out processed simple carbs and high GI/GL foods. Opt for nutrient-dense carbs, which are slow releasing, low GI/GL and therefore promote a constant supply of energy. To lower a food’s GI include a source of protein and fat alongside, eg don’t eat fruit on its own, enjoy a small handful of nuts. Below are some simple swaps to help you make the best carb choice to support your body and improve overall health:
|Swap This >>||For This|
|White bread||Whole grain, spelt, rye or sourdough|
|Wheat couscous||Quinoa or amaranth|
|White pasta||Buckwheat, mung bean or brown rice pasta|
|Instant noodles||Brown rice or soba noodles|
|White rice||Basmati, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, barley and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans)|
|Dried dates and sultanas||Prunes and goji berries|
|Commercial bottled Juice||Fresh squeezed juice or green smoothies|
|Tinned beetroot||Freshly roasted beetroot|
|Water crackers and premiums||Brown rice crackers or Ryvita’s|
|White sushi rolls||Brown rice sushi rolls or rice paper rolls|
|Hot chips||Roasted sweet potato chips|
|Ice cream||Natural yoghurt with berries|
|Table sugar||Raw honey or fruit|
|Take-away Pizza||Home-made spelt base pizza|
Bryne, C et al ‘The role of short chain fatty acids in appetite regulation and energy homeostasis,’ International Journal of Obesity, 14 May 2015.
Erik, E et al 2011, ‘Starches, Sugars and Obesity,’ Nutrients, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 341-369.
Diabetes Australia, Glycaemic Index 2015, Available from: <https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/Living-with-Diabetes/Eating-Well/Glycaemic-Index-GI/>. [16 June 2015].
Tomiyama, A et al 2011, ‘Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol,’ Psychosom Med, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 357-364.