Know Your Carbohydrates
A healthy diet consists of a mix of foods from three basic categories of nutrients; carbohydrates, fats and protein, together they provide our body with energy and enable it to perform its biological functions. However, within each of these groups, there are some that are better than others. For example there are some healthy fats, mainly those from plants and fish, which help keep our arteries clear and our heart beating at a normal rate. And just as there are good fat choices, there are also good carbohydrate choices, mostly those that are minimally or not processed at all.
Carbohydrates come from a wide range of foods, such as grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. They supply the body with glucose; its prefer source of energy. Glucose (sugar is the generic term) is made in the liver after food has been digested in the stomach. The hormone insulin then carries the converted glucose out of the bloodstream and into the body’s cells where it is either used as fuel (as we walk, run, think, and perform other daily activities) or stored, as fat, for later use. This process happens every time we consume food that contains carbohydrates. Slowing this digestive process has healthful benefits.
Different types of carbohydrates go through the digestive process of turning into glucose much quicker than others. For example, a donut will be converted into glucose and released into the bloodstream much quicker than an apple. Consuming carbohydrates that breakdown quickly during digestion is not a sensible dietary practice as they will flood your bloodstream with sugar all at once, too much and too fast surge of fuel. In addition to that, this energy is short lived. As you soon discover that your energy is low again, you feel hungry and need to eat again.
If you continue eating only this kind of “quick energy-giving but not lasting” food, you are more likely to overeat and it will show in your waistline.
Since carbohydrates seem to be the food we tend to eat the most, especially when we are hungry and low energy, our carbohydrate consumption should come from whole grains, vegetables and fruits, not from processed food.
How can we tell the difference between a healthy carbohydrate and a less desirable one? A good way to tell is the degree of refinement or processing of the food. In general, the finer the pieces the faster it is digested (steel cut oats vs. instant oatmeal). The least processed the grain, the most fiber it contains. Fiber is found mostly in the casing of the grain, which slows digestion and absorption, thus glucose release is more gradual. So, whole grains (whole barley, oats, quinoa) are healthier than heavily processed refined grains (white rice, wheat that has been ground and turned into white flour).
Controlling our glucose level through diet is a key component to staying healthy, since elevated blood sugar level will create imbalances in our body, which can translate into fatigue, feeling lethargic, mood swings, cravings, weight gain, and in the long run also put you at risk of developing diseases.
Here are some general guidelines to choosing healthy carbohydrates:
If you chose to eat bread (most of us do) choose bread that is high in fiber (whole wheat or sprouted whole wheat bread). The husk around the grains (the bran) slows the glucose conversion. Rye bread is also a good option. Limit your consumption of baked goods that are made with white flour.
Eating breakfast is an important dietary practice. Avoid cereals that have been processed and have high levels of added sugar, opt for the traditional oatmeal or choose high fiber content cereals. Examples are those that list whole grains, such as whole wheat, oats, barley at the top of the list of the ingredients.
Whole grains are subject to little or no processing, so make friends with them. Barley, buckwheat (kasha), quinoa, millet, brown rice, are good choices.
The type of type of flour used to make pasta (wheat durum), which contains protein and slows digestion, makes it a good choice. It is also a good idea to eat pasta al dente, the softer the pasta the easier it is to convert into glucose.
Vegetables and Fruits
Vegetables are high in fiber, thus an excellent choice. The exception to this is the starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Due to their high starch content they are digested and turned into sugar rapidly. But you can use sweet potatoes instead, which can be prepared in similar way as regular potatoes.
The more fiber content the fruit has the better the choice, think apples, pears, peaches and berries. Canned fruit is different though, since sugar is likely to have been added, thus glucose release is quicker. Fruit juice, since fiber has been removed, also has a rapid glucose conversion.
Beans and legumes
The starch in these foods is slowly broken down into sugar. Canned beans are converted quicker than beans that have been cooked from the dried state. So using dried beans to cook whenever possible is a good idea.
An important caveat here is the fact that everyone may digest food differently. Factors such as how well the persons chews the food, and what other foods are eaten at the same meal also have an effect. But if you stick to eating mostly whole foods and little or no processed food you are likely to be just fine…