Carbohydrate based foods come in many forms such as fruits, vegetables, breads, grains, rice, pasta, beans and legumes. Carbohydrates can be broken down into two categories: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are sugars such as glucose and fructose, while complex carbohydrates are starches (longer chains of sugar that are broken down more slowly) and fibre.
Carbohydrates are our primary source of energy and they provide the structural component of cell walls and plasma membranes. When we consume carbohydrates our body converts them to glucose. Our bodies store glucose in the form of glycogen in muscles tissues to use as fuel for exercise, as well as keeping a reserve in the liver which is used to fuel our brains and bodily functions. The bad news is that once your muscle cells and the liver are full, any excess carbohydrates consumed are stored in bodyfat.
We must remember ‘not all carbohydrates are equal!’ Like everything, there are good and bad carbohydrates. When it comes to choosing your carbohydrates, there are some tools to help you make better choices. One of those tools is the Glycaemic index.
The Glycaemic Index (GI) ranks carbohydrates according to how quickly they are broken down and released into the bloodstream. Glucose (sugar) is rated at 100 on the scale and then other foods are ranked accordingly. White bread has a GI value of 72, cornflakes are 80 and oats are 53. The GI rating of food is extremely important when we are trying to make the better choices.
Foods that have a high GI (70+) are quickly absorbed by the body. The body responds to the rapid rise in blood sugar by releasing insulin which in turn pushes the glucose into the muscle cells and the liver, with any excess being stored as fat. Lower GI foods are broken down more slowly requiring less insulin therefore reducing the likelihood of you storing them as fat.
Where possible we should choose Low to Moderate GI foods.This is because these foods give us longer lasting energy by slowly raising our blood sugar levels. But it is important to note that we can also alter the GI further by including protein and fat as part of our meal. As an example, instead of having jam on your toast try an egg; other ideas include adding nuts to yogurt and so on.
Processed and refined carbohydrates normally have quite high GI values and are pretty much the worst foods you can eat. Two ingredients you should steer clear of are white flour and white sugar. These two are known as the white devils – this is because they have been broken down and had any vitamins and minerals stripped away before being bleached, leaving an almost unrecognisable product. Food manufacturers love them and they are key ingredients in most highly processed food because they’re really cheap and take months and sometimes years before spoiling, giving their products a longer shelf life.
If it isn’t already hard enough, we also need to be aware of deceptive marketing. Many companies are marketing their foods as made from the goodness of whole grains. In my opinion this is extremely dodgy. Yes, at some time the ingredient used in their product may have been a whole grain, but there is absolutely no trace of the goodness left in what you’re about to eat. The best advice is to avoid as much as possible highly processed foods – these foods are best described as empty calories. This is because your body uses more energy to break these items down than the food actually gives you. Food should give us energy not further deplete us.
In summary, yes carbohydrates are important, they provide us with energy to function and move. We should be aware of what carbohydrates we are eating and try to limit the amount of simple, processed and refined carbohydrates. Knowing the GI of your foods can help you make better choices, and not eating carbohydrates on their own will ensure your blood sugar levels stay balanced. Vegetables, especially above ground ones, and whole grain rice are wise choices, while foods containing white flour and sugar are best avoided.