In recent years dietary fats have been pushed aside and carbohydrates seem to be public enemy number one. It only takes a quick search on the internet to be informed by a self-proclaimed nutrition expert that pasta will make us fat and sugar will give us cancer; whilst another nutritionist will tell us that we need carbohydrates to keep our metabolism healthy and lose fat. It is no wonder we are confused as to whether these little molecules of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen are friend or foe.
So what’s the truth?
All carbohydrates are derived from plants; which means in their natural state, think sweet potatoes, rice, carrots, dates, raspberries and wheat- they are rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. All of which protect us from heart disease, cancer and diabetes. However, when we take a natural carbohydrate and refine it, process it and add fats and artificial chemicals to it, that’s when it can be unbeneficial (detrimental) to our bodies. So potatoes dug up from the ground and boiled until soft are rich in potassium, magnesium, folate vitamin B and iron; but when we peel, slice and fry a potato in rapeseed oil then add salt and preservatives to it to make crisps, we remove the nutrients and fibre whilst increasing the fat and salt content. Effectively the crisp making process turns a nutrient dense food into a nutrient sparse one. The same goes for bread, we automatically associate it with making us gain fat; but a minimally processed wholegrain loaf is rich in fibre and B vitamins, only when we play with it – for example refine it and remove its fibre to turn it into white flour then roll it thinly and top it with cheese, tomato and pepperoni does it turn into something that can easily cause excess fat storage.
So, if we eat carbohydrates in their most natural state, they provide us with nutrients essential for optimal health. That does not mean we can eat as much fruit, vegetables and potatoes as we like though; we must consider the type, timing and amount we consume in order to ensure healthy body composition, good energy levels and our best sporting performance.
Carbohydrates are split into two main types. The first is starchy carbohydrates often referred to as slow release, which include foods such as pasta, rice, potatoes and wholegrain bread. These foods are often high in fibre which is great for gut health and broken down into smaller particles of sugar and slowly absorb into the blood stream to provide a regular trickle of energy to the body.
The other type of carbohydrates are simple sugars, often referred to as fast release. These are rapidly absorbed into the blood stream and provide an almost instant source of energy- although this energy does not last for long. Simplesugars are found in table sugar, jelly sweets and fruits. Both starches and sugars have health and performance benefits for us.
Carbohydrates contain four calories per gram, which is less than half of dietary fat; however, we still have to consider the amount of carbohydrate we consume, especially if we are looking to lose weight. Put simply, if we consume more calories than we expend, even if we get them from vegetables, we will put on weight.
Carbohydrates raise our blood glucose levels- this triggers the pancreas to release the hormone insulin. Insulin’s role is to decrease blood glucose to safe levels by directing glucose into muscle cells and the liver. We do not want continuously elevated insulin levels as this can prevent fat breakdown, so if weight loss is our goal we need to ensure are carbohydrates only take up a quarter of our plate at meal times and choose higher fibre options.
Using Carbohydrates Effectively
If we are training frequently and looking to improve our strength or endurance performance, then we need a higher amount of carbohydrates to fuel our training and support our recovery. At all meal times we should be choosing starchy carbohydrates, however immediately after a training session we would benefit from choosing quicker release to start the recovery process quickly. If a training session, especially endurance, is over 60 minutes then our performance would benefit from a very fast release carbohydrate during our workout to keep our body fueled.
A typical day could look like;
- Breakfast: ½ cup oats with milk, pecans and raspberries
- Snack: 1 pear
- Lunch: Avocado, feta and quinoa salad
- Snack: Hummus and vegetable sticks
- Immediately post workout: glass of milk, handful of dried dates
- Dinner: Bean and vegetable curry with wholegrain rice