This blog has stemmed from questions I often get asked.
In the current times there is always so much talk about various diets. Low carb diets have been successful in treating many chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes. Research shows that adherence is the key factor in most of the diet plans and if one is able to follow the plan regularly, most will result in health benefits whether it is low-carb high-fat diet, keto, paleo or whole food plant based. The issue is how long can restrictive diets form an easy way of day to day life and what are the long term risks and benefits associated with each one.
That would be another topic of discussion but let’s talk about carbohydrates for now.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates ( also called carbs) for one on the major groups of the macronutrients along with protein and fats. There are three different types of carbs which include sugars, fibre and starches. The starches and fibre are also called complex carbohydrates. I have already done a blog on sugars and hence I will not go into much detail here but it is important to remember that sugars are simple carbohydrate. These are broken down in the body very quickly and often result in sudden rise and drop in the blood sugar level, which has several harmful effects when looking at overall metabolic health.
Fibre is part of healthy complex carbohydrate which is derived from plants. Animal products are totally devoid of fibre. Fibre can be soluble and insoluble and it is worth knowing that most of the insoluble fibre is not absorbed in the body, however it has several vital functions related to maintaining health. Aiding digestion, regulating cholesterol and blood glucose levels, removing toxins from the body and keeping you full for longer are just some of the common ones. The soluble fibre helps feed the much talked about gut bacteria which has a huge role in maintaining mental and physical wellbeing.
The western diet typically lacks fibre and mostly includes processed, simple carbohydrates like sugar, refined grains which have been stripped of nutrients during the processing. They have been linked to increasing the inflammatory load leading to most of the chronic non-communicable diseases. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and stroke are associated with increased intake of simple sugars and hence best to avoid.
Starches are also complex carbohydrates which are found in legumes, whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. These provide the essential vitamins and minerals but the main benefit comes from the fact that the body takes time to break them down. This prevents the sudden blood sugar changes and has huge benefits in reducing the inflammatory burden of the body.
Myths about carbohydrates
- Carbs make you gain weight: This can be said for simple carbohydrates, but if you are having a wholefood plant predominant diet, it supports weight management with various other health benefits which include improved blood pressure, better sugar control, less cravings as well as better bowel movements. All of these are linked to not just disease prevention but better weight management.
- Fruit is bad because it has sugar: fruits are pre-packaged nutrient rich sources of antioxidants, fibre, minerals, vitamins and polyphenols. Yes, they do have sugar however the fibre in fruits helps in regulating the sugar. I have to say that if you are trying to lose weight or managing diabetes then the selection of the fruits needs to be taken into consideration, otherwise they are healthy carbohydrates and should be included in every meal.
- Carbs make you tired: Carbohydrates provide energy for the body to function well. The question is- which carbs you are choosing? If you are opting for refined carbs and simple sugars: yes, they to result in tiredness. However, if healthy wholefood complex carbs are included, this does not happen. Make a note next time you have a meal which has rice, or sugar or bread and how it leaves you feeling. Experiment and you will notice the difference which can help you in choosing the right carbs to sustain your energy levels.
- Protein is more important that carbs: The body needs all macronutrients to function in a healthy way. Protein is important but protein and carbs work together to process the blood sugar and insulin in an efficient way. A meal with protein along with vegetables, which are rich in complex carbohydrates, can be really good at preventing the sugar surges in the blood.
So let’s look at how to include more complex carbs in your diet
- The first step I always suggest is –limit the processed food. Cook from scratch.
- My simple way to include carbs in every meal is to follow a healthy plate plan. Aim to have complexcarbohydrates as one quarter of the plate you use for your meals. These would be your beans, legumes and wholegrains. The other quarter would be a good source of protein like tofu or lentils and the rest half of the plate would be for vegetables.
- Avoid simple carbohydrates and sugar as much as possible. I would like to mention juices here too. Store bought juices are packed with sugar and even the ones we make at home are stripped of the lovely fibre the fruits contain.
- Plan your kitchen and pantry in a way where you can choose from a variety of whole food. If you have it in your kitchen, you are more likely to use it. The same goes with what you know you are trying to avoid, don’t have it in your cupboard.
- Experiment with new grains- I started with brown rice, then added quinoa and now I cook different grains like millets, amaranth, buckwheat, and barley as a routine. I sometimes mix them together and make a nice salad.
- Beans like kidney beans, butter beans, black beans are good sources of complex carbohydrates. I love throwing them into my salads, soups or sometimes curries. I never used to have black beans but they are so nutrient dense that I have started adding them at least once a week.
- Include berries and fruits with each meal. I often put a bowl of fruits on the table, ready for us to share after our lunch or dinner. Now I hear people ask ‘but I am diabetic’? If it is a choice between a banana and a biscuit, I would suggest going for the banana. But yes if you are choosing between a mango and a papaya, the papaya would definitely have less sugar.
I hope this has inspired you to choose healthier options of complex and fibre rich carbohydrates. And I am sure you would now agree that we don’t need to write off carbs but instead, pick the right ones! (fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans and wholegrains)
I am back to work after sometime off, so feeling really relaxed and recharged.
Wish you all a good ahead.