Don’t neglect the carbs

2014-04-09 00:00

OVER the past few weeks, we have covered the basics of how much protein and fat we should be eating daily. Today we look at the last and most contentious macronutrient of all — carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates provide the only fuel source for many vital organs, including the brain, central nervous system and kidneys. In trying to achieve a healthy balanced diet, carbohydrates are essential. Carbohydrates are broken down by the digestive system into glucose (loosely referred to as sugar). The pancreas then secretes the hormone insulin to move the glucose from the blood into the cells. Some glucose is stored in the muscles and liver cells as glycogen, which is the initial fuel used in exercise.

Carbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy products, legumes, grains and cereals. These numerous foods also provide essential micronutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Low-carbohydrate diets are making headlines regularly as a weight-loss solution. They go by a wide variety of names, including Paleo diet, South Beach diet, Atkins diet and many more. Despite their claims, research suggests that extreme deprivation of carbohydrate foods does not lead to long-term and sustained weight loss, and one may incur serious health problems.

Avoiding all carbohydrates leads to deficiencies in thiamine, folate, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and fibre. Abdominal obesity, osteoporosis and related bone diseases, kidney problems and heart diseases may all result from inadequate carbohydrate intake, and the associated increased protein and fat intake. The basic principle behind recommendations to eat fewer carbohydrates is the supposition that carbohydrates cause weight gain. This is misleading. Weight gain comes from an excess in overall kilojoules, which may come from carbohydrate, fat or protein sources. In the short term, low-carbohydrate diets may cause you to lose weight quickly. This is because the body begins to use body stores of glucose and glycogen (from the liver and muscles) to replace the carbohydrates it is not getting from food. For every one gram of glycogen released, three grams of water is needed. This results in the initial rapid weight loss on a low-carbohydrate diet being mostly water and not body fat. The best way to lose weight and keep it off is to combine a diet high in vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruit and low-fat dairy products with daily exercise.

Actual carbohydrate requirements vary among individuals, depending on multiple factors such as physical activity, body weight and blood-sugar response. Some people prefer to keep carbohydrate intake at a modestly low level, while others favour eating the higher end of the range. In general, adults require in the region of two to four servings of carbohydrate at each meal, with one to two servings as a snack between meals. Here are some examples of serving sizes that provide about 15 grams of carbohydrate to the body:

• one tennis ball-sized piece of fresh fruit or two thirds of a cup of fruit salad or two tablespoons of raisins;

• one slice of bread, ½ a pita bread, ½ a large wrap;

• ½ cup of low-fat flavoured yogurt;

• ½ cup baked beans, chickpeas, legumes;

• ½ cup cooked pasta;

• one medium potato; or

• one third of a cup of cooked rice, couscous.

As carbohydrate stores are used up, the body begins to rely on other sources of fuel such as fat. Unless the stores are replenished, this can lead to the development of ketones in the body. Ketones make the body acidic, leading to metabolic changes, which may be dangerous for some people, such as those with diabetes.

Carbohydrates can be related to fuel in your car’s fuel tank. It needs constant (don’t we know!) refilling in order to achieve good performance.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at eats

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