Are you eating the right kind of carbs?
Monday, 22 February 2016 | Editor
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(This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph and was written by Anna Magee - editor of healthista.com)
Carbohydrates are evil - aren't they?
In polite company, it is more acceptable these days to admit that you’re in AA than to order a pasta dish or to dip into the bread basket. Because carbohydrates are evil, aren’t they?
Thanks to popular carb-avoiding diets such as the Atkins and more recently the Paleo (still one of the most googled regimes on the planet), the dietary virtues of meat and fat has meant shunning starches such as rice, bread, potatoes and pasta – even poor old porridge, once considered breakfast of champions. In the last 12 months, sales of bread in Britain’s supermarkets has dropped by 8.9 per cent.
Carb-phobia is rampant. In the last 12 months, sales of bread in Britain’s supermarkets has dropped by 8.9 per cent, according to a report by market analysts Nielsen. Even in Italy, where pasta was born, sales of the starchy staple has dropped by a staggering 25 per cent since 2009.
Reduction in Carb intake is not working
But our carb drought isn’t working. Not only is Britain the fattest nation in Europe, we’re also more tired, more hungry and more depressed than ever.
“In terms of everyday health, dropping or cutting carbohydrates can make people feel fatigued, because muscles like glycogen as a fuel,” explains Dr Alex Johnstone, a lecturer in nutrition at the Rowett School of Nutrition and Public Health at the University of Glasgow.
"Dropping or cutting carbs can make people feel fatigued"
When we eat carbohydrates, they turn into glycogen in muscles, which is the fuel that gives us that “oooomph” needed when we exercise. “Carbohydrate is also the preferred form of fuel for the brain, too,” says Dr Johnstone. It’s one of the reasons people get headachey, foggy-headed or irritable on high-protein, no-carb diets, especially at their outset.
Carbohydrates can help gut health
Carbohydrate-free diets have now been found to affect gut health, too. “Eating no-carb, high-protein can lead to the production of potentially harmful compounds called n-nitroso produced in the gut,” says Dr Johnstone. Indeed, studies have found that very high protein diets may increase the risk of colonic disease thanks to their production of such compounds. “Eating slow-release carbohydrates, can act as a buffer to help protect the gut from these.”
Indeed, a growing number of nutrition experts are now calling time on the war on carbs, claiming that eating the right types – rather than almost none at all – could be the key to keeping us more satisfied, help us lose weight, increase our energy and even stop food cravings.
For these experts, white and processed carbohydrates such as sugars, pasta, commercial breads and doughs, rice and potatoes should be replaced by slowly digestible carbohydrates, served in their most natural states.
Eat carbs that are slow acting and avoid high insulin production
The key is to eat foods that lower insulin levels by replacing processed carbs with slow-acting carbs. Diabetes sufferers will already know how important that is.
“Rapidly digesting carbohydrates raise insulin levels higher than they would eating a natural diet,” says Dr David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at Harvard School Public Health and author of new book, Always Hungry? Conquer cravings, retrain your fat cells and lose weight permanently. “Insulin is the ultimate fertiliser for your fat cells and directs too many of the calories you’re eating straight into them, then locks the door.
In her latest book Smart Carbs (Orion £16.99), TV presenter Davina McCall advocates distinguishing between “dumb” and “smart” carbs in much the same way that Dr Ludwig names them “fast” and “slow”.
Examples of dumb carb are cream crackers, white potatoes and cornflakes, while smart ones are oatcakes, sweet potatoes and porridge.
“Smart carbs is just a new name for the types of carbs we’ve been telling people to eat for years,” says Fiona Hunter, the registered nutritionist who advised McCall on the book. What makes these carbs “smart” is threefold, she explains. First, they’re low on the Glycaemic Index, or GI, which relates to how quickly they turn to glucose in our blood stream; low is usually considered 55 or less (you can find a list at glycaemicindex.com).
Among the hottest smart carbs exciting the experts are a newly discovered group of slow energy-releasing ‘heritage’ grains, which includes the uber-fashionable quinoa (pronounced keen-wa)
“Second, they’re higher in fibre, so you get fuller with smaller portions, which is great for weight loss,” she says. “Lastly, they’re higher in nutrients, so for example, a sweet potato will contain more minerals like betacarotene and B vitamins than the bog-standard white spud.”
Among the hottest smart carbs exciting the experts are a newly discovered group of slow energy-releasing ‘heritage’ grains, which includes the uber-fashionable quinoa (pronounced keen-wa). Many more have even weirder names such as farro, teff and kamut.
“These grains are released as glucose very slowly into the bloodstream,” says Prof Ludwig. “White bread, or even what passes as wholegrain bread on supermarket shelves today, is made from flour that’s been pulverised into tiny particles that your body will digest very quickly making you hungry again fast,” he explains. “On the other hand, old-world breads such as German pumpernickel or old-world sourdough breads are made with the rye grains still intact so they’re very slow digesting.” You’ll be kept satisfied for longer because their energy is released so slowly and you’ll want less because their high fibre content keeps you full, he explains.
Indeed, just last week, barley – a grain used traditionally in dishes such as Scotch broth – was found to pack substantial nutritional punch. Scientists at Lund University in Sweden asked a group of middle-aged volunteers to eat a serving of barley three times a day, and found that 11-14 hours after their final meal, their metabolisms had improved, their blood sugar and insulin levels had decreased, and they had improved appetite control thanks to what the scientists observed was an increase in gut hormones that regulated their metabolism and appetite. Previous research also found that eating barley could help stimulate healthy bacteria in the gut.
These ancient grains are closer to the way grains would have existed in nature thousands of years ago than our modern wheat varieties, meaning many of their nutrients would still come intact
‘Ancestral’ or ‘ancient’ grains are among the trendy names given to the re-discovered breed of grains Dr Ludwig describes. “Farro is a kind of natural and unprocessed wheat used in Mediterranean cuisine, buckwheat is another, which is naturally gluten-free as is teff, which can be cooked much like porridge,” he says (see below). “These are more nutritious than today’s wheat from which our bread and pasta products are made, their colours mean they contain plant chemicals that are hugely beneficial to health.” Modern wheat, he explains, has been “hybridised” to make the most delicious tasting bread “for immediate taste-gratification purposes, but it’s not supporting health”.
On the other hand, these ancient grains are closer to the way grains would have existed in nature thousands of years ago than our modern wheat varieties, meaning many of their nutrients would still come intact.
Dr Ludwig suggests having three servings of slow carbs a day for optimum health and weight loss. In terms of how much to eat, Fiona Hunter says 50 grams per serving – about a fistful.
So, next time you’re in a trendy restaurant, why not order that exotic-sounding grain or bread that’s on the menu? Just ask the waiter how to pronounce it…
• Power Grains (Ryland, Peters and Small, £9.99) is out now. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
10 POWER GRAINS
Just worked out how to pronounce quinoa? Here are the hottest “new” super-grains to wrap your tongue and tastebuds around:
A staple of Aztec and Inca diets, and one of the oldest cultivated plants, this tiny grain – whose colour can range from white and beige to deep red and black – is gluten-free, high in protein, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Great in stews or salads, it boils like rice and can be popped to achieve a popcorn-like effect. When cooked with coconut milk, it makes for a soothing porridge – as recommended by Hemsley & Hemsley.
A minimally processed wholegrain (only the outermost, inedible hull is removed), hulled barley retains more nutrition and is slower-release than the more commonly available pearl barley (but it takes longer to cook and needs overnight soaking). Great in soups. £1.62 for 800g, from santi-shop.co.uk
Similar to barley, this ancient grain is said to have sustained the Roman legions. Rich in fibre, magnesium and vitamins A, E and B, its wholewheat kernels are sweet and chewy, with a higher carb content than quinoa but with more calcium. Simmer on a low heat to make a nutty risotto. £4.75 for 500g from souschef.co.uk
An ancient relative of durum wheat that’s easily digested and often sold as a flour (£3.39, dovesfarm.co.uk).
The wholegrain can be served in place of rice, and contains high levels of naturally occurring healthy fats.
An unprocessed form of wheat but higher in protein and B vitamins, the high-fibre flour is great for general baking. £4.99 for 1kg, from healthysupplies.co.uk
Wheat and gluten-free, with all essential amino acids, high in protein and magnesium. The flour makes great pancakes and studies have found it helps lower blood sugar so might be helpful for diabetics. £1.90 for 500g, from Tesco
The smallest gluten-free grain, high in calcium and vitamin C and great used as a flour (£2.63, realfoods.co.uk). To use the whole grain, pop it in a dry pan and then boil it to a porridge-like consistency. Great with vegetable and stock to make a heart stew. £6.99 for 1kg, from healthysupplies.co.uk
A great alternative to cous-cous, this tiny grass seed cooks in 15 minutes, and has a sweet nutty flavour. Gluten-free and high in protein, it is one of the most digestible and non-allergenic grains. Makes a great side dish or porridge. £3.79 for 1kg, from healthysupplies.co.uk
A young green wheat that tastes smoky and is great used as a stuffing for poultry or side dishes. Takes about 15 minutes to cook much the same as rice. £3.95, from souschef.co.uk
Some nutritionists believe sprouting grains can help make them more digestible. Rude Health (rudehealth.com) makes a range of unprocessed sprouted porridge flakes, and flours made from sprouted buckwheat, whole wheat and spelt are available at Sainsbury’s.