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Carbohydrates What You Need To Know
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates or carbs as they are more commonly known are one of the three macronutrients that can be found in our food and drinks. Structurally speaking, there are two categories of carbohydrates: simple and complex. In general terms, simple carbs are digested quickly and produce a rapid rise in blood sugar levels where as complex carbs are absorbed more slowly and provide increased satiety.
Regardless of the type of carbohydrate, the body processes and converts them into glucose which is used as a source of energy. Glucose is essential to our lives. Our brains and Central Nervous Systems (CNS) prefer to use glucose for fuel and benefit from a continuously available supply. However it is important to note, the glucose that isn’t used by our bodies in its day to day existence (breathing, cell repair, exercise etc.) is converted and stored within our bodies as fat for later use.
Consumption of these types of carbs, causes a large insulin release from the pancreas. The insulin’s role is to quickly process the sugar. In a normal functioning body this happens efficiently but then results in a post sugar dip – called hypoglycaemia. Hypoglycaemia has the symptoms of low energy, weakness, shakes, mood swings and hunger. This absorption and process of simple carbs can easily result in a cycle of needing to re-ingest further simple carbs to satisfy the hunger cravings.
Examples of simple carbs are certain fruits, sugar, white bread, pasta, white rice, sugary soft drinks, breakfast cereal etc.
The majority of complex carbs also contain fiber. Fiber is indigestible and so passes through your system without being absorbed. It’s role is to assist with the transit of food through your digestive tract and also provides bulk to your food which fills you up.
Absorption of complex carbs results in a slower release of their energy and a greater sensation of satiety without the typical highs and crashes associated with ingestion of simple carbs.
Examples of complex carbs include: starchy vegetables, legumes, fibrous vegetables and grains. e.g. sweet potatoes, rolled oats, beans, brown rice, broccoli etc.
What causes weight gain?
So, why are carbs singled out as the ‘diet villains’ that cause people to fail in their weight loss goals? Well, one reason is that it’s particularly easy to over eat on simple, refined and processed carbohydrates. You can easily drink a large amount of your daily calories in soda without feeling satisfied, eat a large amount of sugary, calorie dense foods only to find yourself unsatisfied and hungry very soon afterwards.
Lots of fingers have been pointed in the direction of carbs with accusations of how they cause weight gain and some people will insist that if you want to drop weight and get lean then you need to be on a low carb diet. Well, the truth isn’t quite as straight forward as that!
At the simplest level, whether you maintain, gain or lose weight on a daily basis is all down to the energy balance that is achieved. If you consume the same number of calories that you expend each day (through maintenance of your body’s function and exercise) then your weight will be maintained. A deficit or surplus of calories consumed below or above this level, will cause a weight loss or weight gain respectively. Whether the majority of your calories come from one particular macronutrient is irrelevant in terms of weight gain or loss. It will however make a huge difference to mood, performance and health. Achieving the correct macronutrient ratios for your goals is therefore a very important part of setting up your individual nutritional programme.
Where problems can occur is when sedentary or insulin resistant people over consume simple carbs on a regular basis. This can lead to a cycle of blood sugar level spikes, crashes and the body issuing hunger pangs to encourage us to repeat the whole process almost immediately! I think a lot of us can relate to having a large baguette at lunch time only to find ourselves struggling to keep our eyes open an hour or so later. This is then followed by the 3 o’clock vending machine raid to re-elevate the blood sugar levels with some sort of sugary snack or soft drink. Over time this sort of spiking and crashing can lead to permanent damage as the body’s reaction to insulin degrades and in response to carb intake more and more insulin needs to be secreted to cause the required reactions in the body. Eventually, if this continues un-addressed the person can become diabetic and require medication to assist with the insulin process. This person is then classed as being insulin resistant as their reaction to insulin has diminished.
As a recommendation you should aim to get the majority of your carbohydrate intake from non-processed complex carbs which will provide greater nutrients v calories than simple carbs. As well as providing the additional nutrients, complex carbs typically contain fibre which has benefits for gut health and function. An easy way to assess how many carbs you should take in is to ask yourself how active you have been or are going to be. If you are just about to leave for an 8 hour desk job – you wouldn’t want to have a high carb breakfast of pastries, jam and orange juice!! However, if you’ve been physically active, have worked out etc. then you can replenish your expenditure with a higher intake of carbs.
This doesn’t mean you can never enjoy simple carbs again! There are times when taking in simple carbs is actually beneficial to performance and if improving sports specific performance is a goal then the timing of simple carbs will be covered in your programme.
Carbohydrate Portion Sizes
As with most things associated with our diets, it’s all about achieving the correct balance. The ratio of calories that are consumed from carbs versus the other two macro-nutrients:- protein and fat needs to be planned according to goals and with appreciation of the overall energy balance required. Our nutrition programme makes this easy by utilising a ‘My Plate’ principle where you use a visual guide to easily determine how your macronutrient portions should look on your serving plate. Specific ‘cheat sheets’ are provided to give you a wide selection of nutrient dense food options for each type of macro. This makes pulling a meal together easy as it is non prescriptive. Using this approach avoids the need to weigh and analyse the macronutrient contents of your foods. Which can be time consuming, confusing and fiddly for most people.
Where does the Glycaemic Index fit in?
The Glycaemic Index (GI) of food provides an indication of how quickly a food causes an insulin response. However, the values are based on ingestion of that food in isolation. This rarely happens in a real world diet and mixing fats, fibre and protein on a plate with the chosen food can alter the speed of reaction. So whilst it can be used as a reference it isn’t part of our education programme.
How does a low carb diet work?
When dietary carbohydrates are restricted the body has a mechanism of using ketones to allow the conversion and transfer of energy. The process of gluconeogenesis can provide the minimum amount of glucose needed each day (this is estimated at approx. 50grams). The restriction of carbohydrates in the diet uses the principle of maintaining levels of insulin at as close to baseline as possible. Basing the diet on foods that mostly consist of the macronutrients protein and fat results in a lower insulin response which avoids additional calories being stored as fat and causes the body to use its ketones and gluconeogenesis process to generate the required glucose.
This level of restriction is both unnecessary and also has a host of negatives. Our recommendation would be to avoid exclusion of any one particular macronutrient and work to determine the correct level of carbohydrate intake for both your body composition, daily activity levels and overall goals.
What steps can I implement to help control weight
Ok, so you’ve read the whole article and now you are wondering what nice and simple steps you can put into practice to help control your weight! No problem, ideally we would recommend a full nutrition programme to determine your macronutrient ratios that are appropriate. However, if you are not ready for that, here are some general steps to follow.
The fact is that most Western meal plates are constructed with too much of a bias on simple carbs. So if weight loss is your goal, consider these steps:-
- Increase protein intake and ensure each meal has a good portion of protein included. This will help to meet your overall daily needs.
- Look to obtain the majority of carbs from the complex, un-processed variety. Such as vegetables and fruits. If you are looking to lose weight, focus on vegetables rather than fruits.
- Reduce the amount of daily sugar intake (consider direct sugar intake as well as juices and hidden sugars).
- Reduce the intake of breads.
- Reduce the intake of white rice.
- Reduce the intake of white potatoes.
- Reduce the intake of pasta.
- Ensure each meal has a moderate volume of healthy fats.
- Carbs are important and necessary for optimal health and body functions.
- You can exist on very low carb diets but the negatives to this outweigh the positives and in truth this approach is unnecessary for the majority of people.
- Most people can dramatically improve their body composition by simply re-addressing the amount of simple carbs that are included in their diets.
- The best carbs to ingest are slow digesting, unprocessed, complex carbs. These tend to be highest in nutrients and help to control daily food intake by increasing satiety.
- The optimal time for eating simple carbs is in the period after intensive exercise, in this post work window you can use simple carbs to rapidly replenish diminished glycogen levels.
- An easy rule to apply is ‘carbs when they are earned’. Use common sense, if you are going to be inactive all day (desk job) then you do not need to ingest a large volume of carbohydrates – your body will have no option but to store the majority of the calories as fat.
- Learn to control carb intake and you can live to enjoy them without the guilt some people suffer from.