Good carbs. Bad carbs. Low GI. High GI. Low carb diets. Very low carb diets. No carb diets. No class of food seems to vex us as much as carbohydrates.
Getting the balance right between the carbs you love and the carbs you know are good for you is not always easy. In fact it may be made harder because of the addictive nature of refined carbohydrates.
A recent very small study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition used brain scans to look at the effects of high and low glycaemic index (GI) meals on activity in the brain in 12 men.
GI is a measure of the effect that different foods have on blood sugar levels. The higher the GI level, the quicker the food leads to a spike in blood sugar levels. Many foods with a high GI level tend to fall into the refined carbohydrates category. They are usually high calorie/low nutrition foods like crisps, sodas, chips and white bread.
The researchers say that certain regions of the brain are regulated by the brain chemical dopamine, and these play a key role in “reward and craving”. These brain regions appear to be involved in the response to food. The researchers suggest that low and high GI diets may have different effects on this system.
What their study showed was that four hours after eating a high GI meal, blood flow in areas of the brain associated with “reward and craving” behaviour was greater, particularly in overweight people, than after eating a low GI meal.
Lighting up this area of the brain means that you can eat a high GI meal and very soon afterwards begin to crave more. These suggest that these types of foods cause physical cravings in the same way as cigarettes.
Problems with low carb diets
On the other hand low carb diets have been implicated in health problems. While there is evidence that weight loss can result from low carb diets, this may be misleading since any major change in your diet can result in initial weight loss though this may not be maintained over the long run.
In addition very often what these diets do is exchange unhealthy types of carbs for the healthier carbs in whole foods. The long-term health implications of eating a genuinely very low proportion of carbohydrates have not been well studied. Often what is most influential is what the rest of your diet looks like.
Low carbohydrate diets that have been poorly thought through, often lack vitamins and are low in fibre. A low fibre diet can result in constipation – a risk factor for colon cancer.
Low carbohydrate diets also tend to replace carbohydrate with fat and protein. In a study of more than 100,000 people over more than 20 years within the Nurses’ Health Study concluded that a low-carbohydrate diet high in vegetables, with a large proportion of proteins and oils coming from plant sources, decreased mortality. But a low-carbohydrate diet with largely animal sources of protein and fat increased mortality.
For people who want to be healthy or lose weight the implication is clear. It’s not enough simply to eat less and exercise more to lose weight you also need to eat better, particularly consuming fewer processed carbs and more whole foods.
Fuel for living
Along with protein and fat, carbohydrates fuel our bodies for physical and mental activity, as well as keeping our basal metabolism ticking over when we are at rest.
We can get carbohydrates in four of the five food groups: grains, fruit, vegetables and dairy. Only meats, poultry, fish and oils do not contain carbohydrates. For most of us, more than half of our calories come from carbohydrates each day. In a healthy diet around carbohydrates make up around 45-65% of the daily calories – that’s around 250-350 g of carbohydrates each day (based on a 2,000 calorie daily intake).
Carbohydrates can be divided into three classes: sugars, starches and fibres. Across this spectrum there are simple carbohydrates like table sugar which are easily broken down by the body and the glucose quickly taken up by the bloodstream. Starches and fibres (both soluble and non-soluble) – especially from whole grains – are more complex and take much longer to be broken down.
The fibres in whole foods are not absorbed or used as fuel but they performs other helpful functions such as absorbing dietary cholesterol, contributing to the production of vitamin K in the gut, providing a feeling of fullness and helping food move through the digestive tract, thus preventing constipation.
Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient in our diet. Limiting their intake is not required for good health. A better approach is to choose our carbohydrates more wisely.
Most of the ‘bad’ carbohydrate choices we make come in the form of sugary rinks and refined grains. We’ve already written extensively on this site about the problems associated with sugary drinks.
Cutting these from your diet is an important step towards health. Switching from white to brown – bread, rice and pasta – is also a good thing to do.
But why not move beyond this dull triumvirate and try a few different whole food sources of nutrient dense carbohydrates?
Not only will they perk up your taste buds, eating these types of carbohydrates can also reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, plus lower your cholesterol levels. Here are some of our favourites:
Barley is a fantastic grain that has a number of important medicinal properties. It is great for digestion and cholesterol, thanks to its high fibre content, and its low glycaemic index is one of a number of factors that help barley improve blood health and reduce diabetes risk.
Studies show that whole-grain barley can help maintain steady blood sugar levels for up to 10 hours after consumption, much longer than whole grain wheat.
Barley grass is easily digested green food sprouted from barley seeds.
Barley grain has a very high fibre content making it a good digestive aid. One portion provides nearly half the daily recommended amount. Barley fibre feeds good bacteria in the gut, which in turn produce butyric acid, the primary fuel for intestinal cells necessary for maintaining a healthy colon. Barley grass juice has been shown to improve the symptoms of ulcerative colitis.
The high levels of soluble fibre in barley help remove excess fat and cholesterols from the blood, lowering the risk of hypertension and hardening of the arteries.
It’s also a slow release carbohydrate that helps maintain steady blood sugar levels. In addition, barley is abundant in magnesium and manganese both of which are necessary for carbohydrate metabolism.
Barley is an excellent food in its own right so don’t just add it to casseroles. Whole barley grains make an excellent risotto; the sweet taste of the grain works especially well with mushrooms. Barley can also be served as a side dish in place of rice.
Barley is low in gluten so when baking, substitute up to half the regular flour for barley flour. It adds extra flavour and texture to the loaf, as well as reducing gluten content.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is not a true cereal but a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It is a native to the Andes and was successfully domesticated around 4,000 years ago. Quinoa grains are cooked in the same way as rice and has a sweet grassy flavour and texture. It is a complete source of protein and a good source of anti-inflammatory monounsaturated and omega 3 fatty acids.
Quinoa is considered a complete protein because it contains all the essential amino acids. It is particularly high in lysine, an amino acid important for tissue growth and repair. It contains all the essential amino acids like lysine and good quantities of iron, calcium and phosphorus. It’s also high in antioxidants.
In addition to a spectrum of e vitamins, including alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-tocopherol, quinoa contains two antioxidant flavonoids, quercitin and kaempferol, in concentrations equal to or higher than high-flavonoid berries like cranberries. The red grains contain the antioxidant beta-cyanin pigments, which also give beets their colouring, are responsible for the bright red hue of this variety. Quinoa leaves, when you can find them, can be eaten as a vegetable, much like amaranth.
Unlike many grains quinoa contains oleic acid a monounsaturated fatty acid and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid) in useful amounts. This combination can help reduce cholesterol and fight inflammation that can lead to hardening of the arteries.
Quinoa is easy to digest and doesn’t contain gluten, making it suitable for those on gluten-free diets.
Try using quinoa instead of rice. For a nutritious side dish, serve like a pilau cooked in stock and with added vegetables. Also good as a stuffing for marrows, aubergines and peppers. Add cooked quinoa to muffins and breads, and even pancakes. Sprouting activates beneficial enzymes and boosts nutrient content. Sprouted quinoa can be used in salads and sandwiches just like alfalfa sprouts.
Although it’s often used like a cereal grain, amaranth is what is known as a ‘pseudocereal’. Like buckwheat and quinoa it is actually the seed of a broad leafed plant rather than a grass. Eight thousand years ago, before such classifications mattered, Amaranth was a staple of the Aztec diet. Both the grain and the leaves are used in medicinal cooking as a source of high quality protein, cholesterol lowering phytosterols and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals.
Amaranth grains are nutritionally similar to Swiss chard and spinach, but higher in both calcium and three times more niacin, amaranth greens are worth seeking out in specialist oriental markets. They are also rich in phytosterols, plant hormones that help lower cholesterol.
Regular consumption of amaranth seed (or oil) can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while improving immunity.
Unlike other grains it’s not the fibre content of amaranth that protects the heart but its levels of phytosterols and squalene. Squalene is a strong antioxidant that can help reduce the impact of toxic substance such as pollution and industrial chemicals on body systems. It can also improve the symptoms of chronic fatigue.
Amaranth is a good source of amino acids. In particular it has good amounts of lysine, an essential amino acid found only in limited amounts in other grains or plant sources. Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins in the body, but also aid metabolism and the growth and repair of tissue.
Amaranth contains an anti-inflammatory substance called lunasin. In addition to fighting inflammation lunasin has been shown in laboratory studies to halt the growth of cancer cells.
Sprouting the tiny seeds is the best way to enjoy all their nutrients, Try using sprouted amaranth grains in salads and sandwiches.
Amaranth flour is gluten free and can be used in conventional and gluten free bread, cake or muffin recipes. On its own it is somewhat bitter and most recipes recommend amaranth should be no more than 10-15% o the total weight of flour in any recipe.
Long before breakfast meant a bowl of sugar-coated artificially flavoured cereal, our ancestors thrived on porridges made from whole grains such as oats. We still use oats in a variety of ways including healthy cereals, snacks, biscuits and breads. The grain contains multiple nutrients and a gummy water soluble fibre called beta-glucan, which helps reduce cholesterol. Oats are naturally sedative and excellent for easing indigestion.
Oats contain the alkaloid, gramine, a natural sedative and can treat depression, anxiety and insomnia without side effects. Tea made from oat straw is a traditional remedy for anxiety and insomnia.
Oats, oat bran, and oatmeal contain a specific type of fibre known as beta-glucan which can quickly help lower cholesterol levels. Avenanthramides, antioxidant compounds unique to oats, help prevent free radicals from damaging LDL cholesterol, thus reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Beta-glucan has beneficial effects in diabetes as well helping to prevent big spikes in blood sugar. Useful amounts of magnesium help regulate insulin secretion.
Oats are easy to digest and are of particular value in easing upset stomachs and in special diets for convalescents.
Think oats and you think porridge. But remember that porridge doesn’t need to be sweet. Try seasoning cooked whole oat porridge with salt and pepper. Add shavings of sharp cheddar or parmesan a squeeze of fresh lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. Top with a poached egg.
You can buy oat milk or try making your own from soaked oat groats. Oat milk is a nutritious alternative to dairy milk. It contains more calcium than cow’s milk and has been shown to help reduce cholesterol.
If you want to try sprouting your own oats, look for sprouting groats that have not been heat treated. Juice made from sprouted oats is not as popular as wheat grass juice, but it is nutritionally comparable. The sprouts can also be eaten raw. Use sprouted oats for a fresh approach to combine with chopped walnuts and dried fruit such as raisins or dates, season with cinnamon and sweeten with maple syrup.
Buckwheat is not a true cereal but is instead related to rhubarb, sorrel and dock. It contains all eight essential amino acids, as well as high proportions of manganese, magnesium and fibre. It also contains important antioxidant flavonoids such as quercitin and rutin. Quercitin, is believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties, while rutin helps strengthens the capillaries and improves circulation, and can help protect against painful varicose veins.
Buckwheat doesn’t contain gluten which makes it ideal for gluten free diets. It is rich, however, in mucilaginous fibre which helps lubricate and soothe the digestive tract. Buckwheat also contains a type of indigestible fibre that acts like a probiotics feeding helpful bacteria in the gut.
Its slow-release carbohydrates help maintain steady blood sugar levels. In addition, buckwheat is abundant in magnesium and manganese both of which are necessary for carbohydrate metabolism.
Like most whole grains buckwheat contains plant hormones called lignans, which can promote hormone balance in both men and women. One lignan, enterolactone, has been shown to protect against breast and other hormone dependent cancers.
Buckwheat flour is a gluten free alternative to wheat flour that can be used in baking. Look for a dark-coloured flour which contains the husk and a greater proportion of protein than the light flour. For still greater nutrition seek out sprouted buckwheat flour. Toasted buckwheat can be infused to make a pleasant tea.
Use buckwheat as you would regular flour to make tasty crepes that can be used with sweet or savoury fillings.
Japanese soba noodles are made from buckwheat and are a wonderful addition to soups as well as a great base for stir fried vegetables.
Buckwheat is very easy to sprout. Soak raw, untoasted seeds for about half an hour drain and keep moist until they begin to sprout. Toasted buckwheat will have a golden brown colour, whereas raw buckwheat will be white or light green.
Soaking and sprouting the seeds releases the mucilaginous fibre. Put this to good use by making a sprouted buckwheat ‘porridge’ by combining the just sprouted seeds with yoghurt or nut milk and fruit or an energizing start to the day.
It was once a staple grain of Africa and India and is maybe more familiar to pet owners as something they feed their birds. There are a bewildering number of varieties of millet and today millet ranks as the sixth most important grain in the world and sustains around one third of the global population. It is a nutritious, non-acid forming grain considered one of the least allergenic and most digestible grains available. Millet is high in protein and fibre as well as B-complex vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.
Millet seeds contain phytic acid, which can help lower cholesterol, and phytate, which is associated with reduced cancer.
It is rich in B vitamins, especially niacin (B3) can help to lower cholesterol. Magnesium in millet can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attack, especially in people with atherosclerosis or diabetes. It can also help reduce the severity of asthma and the frequency of migraine attacks. High fibre helps increase insulin sensitivity and reduces levels of blood fats.
Millet has substantial amounts of tryptophan, and amino acid that can help induce a good night’s sleep.
Evidence shows that eating foods high in insoluble fibre, such as millet, can help prevent avoid gallstones. Insoluble fibre helps reduce the secretion of bile acids, excessive amounts of which contribute to gallstone formation.
Pre-soaking millet shortens cooking time. The flavour of millet is enhanced by lightly roasting the grains in a dry pan before cooking; stir constantly for approximately three minutes or until a mild, nutty aroma is detected.
Millet may also be sprouted for use in salads and sandwiches.
Instead of rice or pasta add cooked millet to salads to add flavour and nutrition. Add millet flour to breads to help reduce their gluten content.
Millet can form the basis of a nutritional porridge. Serve with dried plums and/or apricots and sliced almonds.
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