“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
With low-carb diets being sold on the market, carbohydrates have been given a bad name. You probably have a friend who has tried one of the many low-carb diets offered, or perhaps you have tried it yourself. Most people are pleasantly surprised when at first their weight seems to be melting off their body, but when the diet is over and they return to their normal eating, they gain back the same, or more, weight. You may have also heard of high-carb diets. Many athletes consume high amounts of carbs, and they look great. So why can’t you? This blog post will hopefully give you a better understanding of how carbohydrates work in the body, and what lifestyle changes pertaining to them may be best for you.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients essential to the growth and maintenance of the human body. Carbohydrates come to us mainly from plant-based sources such as vegetables, fruit, grain, etc. This also includes sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, and sugar. Quite often when we hear the word carbs, we think of bread, fries, sweets, and many other high sugar foods. We don’t often consider that most foods are in fact carbohydrates, just in different forms. Carbohydrates, along with fat and protein, are an important part of a healthy diet, and when used properly can be of huge benefit.
When carbohydrates enter the body they are being broken down into glucose. The glucose is then absorbed into the small intestine, and then into the blood stream. The blood stream carries it to the liver, or to the muscle where it is stored as glycogen. Glycogen is a crucial part of ATP synthesis (energy production). When you exercise, especially at high intensities, glycogen is easily accessible to produce ATP.
If you do not eat enough carbohydrates you will not have enough stored energy, and as a result, you will feel like you hit a wall, and will have to slow down sooner than you would like. If you eat too many carbohydrates you will have a spike in blood sugar, and then a very noticeable drop. This is when the pancreas has been notified to release insulin to keep your blood sugar from getting too high. When insulin is released it causes the body to store the sugar as fat. This is the safest way for the body to deal with the excess sugar. This is why protein paired with carbohydrates is ideal. Protein does not have the same affect on blood sugar as carbohydrates, as it actually helps stabilize it. When consumed with carbohydrates, protein can help slow down the digestion of the sugar, causing its release to be slowed down into the blood stream.
Herein lies the catch. Not all carbohydrates affect blood sugar at the same level. A donut is going to cause a bigger spike in blood sugar than an apple. Rice is going to cause a bigger spike than broccoli. This can be quantified using the glycemic index. The glycemic index assigns a number to each food based on its affect on blood sugar. The lower the number, the less effect it has. The higher the number, the larger the increase in blood sugar. You can lower a food’s glycemic index by pairing it with a lower glycemic food, or adding protein and fat to your meal. Lower glycemic foods are a lot higher in fibre, which is the main reason they do not affect blood sugar as significantly. Fibre slows down digestion, meaning that sugar is gradually released rather than dumped very quickly into the blood stream. This is why eating vegetables and whole grains are so important, as they are high in fibre. Athletes can get away with eating higher glycemic index foods because they use up so much energy during training. If they don’t keep the energy demands met, they notice a drop in performance. Most of us don’t need high amounts of carbohydrates, we need a good balance between all three macronutrients.
So what about low-carb diets?
There are dozens of popular low-carb diets on the market. They claim that the best way to lose weight is to cut out carbohydrates, and increase your fat and protein intake. Over time, a low ratio of carbohydrates-to-protein forces the body to find a new energy source. The body starts to use fat, which is known as ketogenesis. This is when many people see weight loss. The issue is that for most people this diet is not sustainable. Many people will commit 2-3 months of cutting out carbohydrates, and notice positive changes. When they return to their regular diet, and begin adding carbohydrates back in, their body does not know how to respond to all the sugar being dumped into the blood stream. It has adapted to using fat as fuel, so instead of using the sugar as immediate energy, the body stores it as more fat. This is when people notice the weight they lost being rapidly put back on. Often, they will go a few months, and then return to the low carb diet, and continue that cycle. This is known as yo-yo dieting, which can be detrimental to the metabolism, eventually leading to minimal weight loss no matter what diet they try. That being said, I have known people who chose to remain low-carb all the time, and are very happy with the results. As of yet, there have not been enough studies conducted to determine what long-term effects this type of lifestyle can have.
So what should I eat?
When choosing carbohydrates, you want to choose slower digesting carbs more often, which are lower on the glycemic index. A few examples include:
Whole Grain (considered a medium glycemic index)
Basmati rice (considered medium glycemic index)
Some you want to use sparingly:
When you do indulge in a food that is higher on the glycemic index try to balance it out with protein and fat. This will help balance out the blood sugar so that less is stored as fat.
Tip:When looking at your dinner plate try to have half of it filled with veggies, a quarter with protein, and another quarter with a starchier carbohydrate (rice, potato, noodles etc.). Don’t forget your fat, whether its some oil added to the veggies or a couple almonds on the side, they are just as necessary as the other nutrients.
Keep eating your veggies!