Carb Clues

The carbohydrates in our diet supply our body's fuel and are composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Each gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories of energy. Carbs supply the energy for all our activities and keep things ticking over even when we are resting. Carbs can be found in many forms of our daily diet - from sugar to bread, from cereals to jam, from fruit to potatoes.

The healthier carbohydrates contain both starch and fibre, and are called complex (or unprocessed) carbohydrates. These include wholemeal pasta, brown rice, vegetables and wheat (bread), and they supply the body with a slow, steady flow of energy. Simple 'sugary' carbohydrates are to be found in refined and processed foods, such as sugar, white bread, biscuits, cakes, sweets, etc.

Most carbohydrates are broken down into glucose when digested, and the rest is then converted to glucose in the liver. If the body doesn't use or need the carbohydrates for energy, the muscles and liver store as glycogen for later use. If this isn't used then it is converted to fat and stored in the body (so couch potatoes beware!).

Unrefined carbs are particularly good for you because they have lots of natural fibre. In addition, complex carbohydrates such as root vegetables and fresh fruit provide not only starch and fibre, but also essential vitamins and minerals.

Current recommendations for healthy eating suggest that you should obtain at least 50% of your energy needs (calories) from complex carbohydrates. Most nutritionists agree that consumption of refined sugars should be reduced to no more than 10% of our calorie intake.

The Glycaemic Index, which measures foods on how much glucose is produced in the bloodstream in a given time, was developed for diabetics to help identify food to lower their blood-glucose levels, and is extremely useful for comparing various carbohydrates in terms of 'good' or 'bad'. The higher the rating, the higher the sugar content.

So, good carbohydrates are those that are only partly assimilated by the body, and consequently produce a smaller rise in blood-glucose level. These include most fruit and vegetables, lentils and beans, wholemeal bread, unrefined cereals and brown or Basmati rice. What we call 'bad' or simple carbohydrates lead to a higher rise in blood-glucose. Foods included here are sugar-related (sugar, jams, sweets, chocolate, cakes, ice-cream, etc) and also processed foods such as white flour, white rice, biscuits and most pre-prepared meals. Also note that some foods may change their classification by how they are cooked. Potatoes for example have a lower GI reading when boiled or baked in their jacket. But can rise dramatically when roasted, fried or mashed! And this is without any extra fat content.

The Atkins Diet threw a spanner in the works when Dr Atkins recommended a no-carbohydrate diet to lose weight. Not enough room here to go through the details of the diet, but suffice to say that eating no carbohydrates, including vegetables and fruit, and eating lots of fat and protein may certainly lose weight quickly, but is extremely unhealthy and unlikely to be sustained for the rest of your life! Identifying the carbohydrates that are good for you and losing the sugar-related kind will help you to lose or maintain your weight, and will also be a lot healthier for your body. Knowing your carbs will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.

Carbs and Sport
When working-out or taking part in a sport activity it is best to eat complex carbohydrates (fresh pasta and salad for instance) at least two hours before training or an event, and to eat or drink simple carbohydrates during or after an event. 'During' means for events lasting over 90 minutes. The popular banana has a rating of 55 on the Glycemic Index. Although it has high sugar levels, it is not easily digested, so healthier alternatives would be sports drinks (which also help fluid balance), sports bars or high-GI items like cornflakes. These are best taken after the work-out or sports event. When training or working-out in the morning, eat small amounts of carbohydrate at least an hour beforehand for that energy fix. Porridge is ideal if worrying about weight gain.