To Carb or Not to Carb…that is the question.
I feel like recently my email inbox and Pinterest feed have been bombarded with articles and posts regarding the pros and cons of carbohydrates as part of a healthy diet. It seems that although diet fads come in and out of fashion more often than I wear clean underpants (now, now, no nasty jokes thank you very much!), the debate on carbs vs. carb free diets has been a hot topic for quite a while now. I thought I’d do a bit of research on the subject and find out just how to tell fact from fiction.
What are carbohydrates exactly?
Let’s start off with a little background information. Carbohydrates are our bodies fuel. They are broken down into glucose (sugar) to be used for energy, and also contain many vitamins and minerals.When you eat carbohydrates, your pancreas releases insulin to aid in the glucose being moved from your blood to the cells that need the energy. Carbs can be found in lots of foods; bread, cereals, rice, pasta, legumes, corn, potato, fruit, milk, yoghurt, sugar, biscuits, cakes and lollies – so they’re pretty hard to avoid! Carbs have traditionally been split into two main categories – complex and simple (or ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ as I like to call them!). More recently, however, carbs have been rated on a scale called the Glycemic Index (or GI as it’s better known – ring any bells?). This means they are now put on a scale as to how quickly they can be absorbed and raise the glucose level in your body.
My Experience with a no-carbohydrate diet
Last year when I was planning to get married, I joined a diet/exercise program online designed to get the perfect ‘bride body’. One of the rules held by the diet on this plan was a strict ‘no starchy carbs’ mandate (pasta, rice, potatoes etc.) To a certain extent, it worked – I lost kilos in rapid succession and was overjoyed at my new found physique and confidence. Of course I was losing weight, I had drastically decreased my calorie intake. Then came the downsides. At first it was the cravings, longings for pasta and bread and all the other things that had, up until that point, been a staple in nearly every dinner. These cravings, I could have dealt with. It wasn’t long, however, until I realised that I suddenly had no energy and was tired all the time. This, combined with the added stress of planning a wedding and teaching a class that was 80% behaviour management, made the naughty carb binge a regular occurrence. Thus, my rapid weight loss and boosted confidence petered out until I felt like I was right back where I started. I was confusing a slim body with a healthy body, and it wasn’t long before it became apparent to me that something had to change.
It wasn’t until I recently started researching carbs that I realised that during this whole episode in my life I was self-sabotaging my ‘healthy’ lifestyle. It has really made me a bit ashamed that I was one of those people that drastically changed my diet with no knowledge of the nutritional information behind my choices.
The Facts – at last!
What I should have been watching out for were foods with a high GI. The faster the body absorbs the carbohydrates and turns it to glucose, the higher the GI score of the food. The way my mother explains it is to compare it to a fire. You want your fire to keep burning (your fire = your body and it’s energy levels). High GI foods to your body are like newspaper and kindling to a fire – they provide a short sharp burst of energy and are soon burned away. You find yourself experiencing the dreaded ‘sugar slump’ where your energy levels are exceedingly high and then fall very quickly, leaving you feeling lethargic, hungry and craving more sugar to keep the energy going. As well as this, high GI foods can lead to insulin spikes which try to rapidly process the glucose. If your insulin spikes too often, you may become insulin resistant, where your cells and muscles stop reacting to the substance. This causes blood sugar levels to remain higher for longer without the glucose being transported to the cells. If your body is consistently trying to produce insulin without the glucose being processed, it can lead to nasty side effects such as type 2 diabetes. Eventually your body can no longer produce insulin as the cells responsible for this have been worn out and stop working.
Low GI foods, on the other hand, are like a big fat log – they provide energy to your body slowly over a longer period of time. This leads to increased concentration levels, your brain and body getting the energy it needs to function for a longer period of time, and you feeling more full for longer. Lower GI foods can also help speed up fat burning.
I have found it extremely easy to switch from high GI foods, including highly refined white bread, pasta and sugary foods, to lower GI foods, such as legumes (kidney beans, chickpeas, etc), wholemeal pasta, bread and cereals, and yummy fruit such as apples, pears and oranges. It is so much more easy and more beneficial to your health than cutting out carbs all together. My energy levels mean I am able to push myself further at the gym and I am more full during the day which means there’s no unnecessary snacking or 3 o’clock cravings!
I have realised it’s not carbs you should look out for, but the type of carbs that you should be mindful of. The Glycemic Index Foundation have some great guidelines to how you can be aware of making healthy choices when it comes to selecting your carbohydrates. As a general rule of thumb, foods with a GI of 70 or more are generally high and foods with a glycemic index of less than 55 have a low GI. I have found a much healthier lifestyle eating these in moderation, and my mood and energy levels leave no doubt in my mind that I have made the right choice.