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Root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yam are a healthy choice when not cooked in too much salt or fat.

The popularity of diets such as Atkins and South Beach has certainly made carbohydrates or carbs the big bad wolf in the world of weight loss. These days, carbs are equated with flab and honestly, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at what is a very essential part of our diet. What we need to focus on instead is the kind of carbohydrates we consume.

Carbohydrates make up, by far, the largest volume (60%) of our daily food intake. Nowhere in the world will you find a diet without breads, pasta and rice. All these are nothing but carbs, a major source of food energy.

After my post on Lean Muscle Mass, if any of you have begun a weights and strength training programme, remember that carbs are very crucial for the muscle-building process! You can eat all your favourite carbohydrates immediately after training and it will set off a cascade of hormonal changes that aid in the rebuilding of muscle mass.

How are carbohydrates processed in my body?

All carbohydrates break down into glucose when digested. Glucose is transported around the body through blood and converted into energy. Two important factors here are:

a) The amount of glucose in the body. The pancreas gland in your abdomen secretes the hormone insulin, which controls the uptake of glucose by your cells.

If you have excess glucose, this is converted into glycogen – which is stored in the liver or in fat around the body.

b) The slower the release of glucose and hormones, the more stable and sustainable the energy levels of the body.

How many types of carbohydrates are there?

There are two types of carbohydrates – simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates include refined sugars like sugar, sweets, jellies, fizzy drinks, and alcohol and simple natural sugars from fruits and fruit juices.

These carbohydrates get released faster as glucose into your blood. These are empty calories, as they do not provide any other nutrients. This can cause peaks and drops in your blood sugar level and less stable energy levels in the body

However, fruit and pure fruit juices (without added sugars) are healthier simple carbohydrates since they provide essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, fibre and energy vital for bodily processes. For example, apples have numerous health benefits. Besides being low in calories, they are high in fibre, keep you full longer, and contain antioxidants which help prevent the formation of bad cholesterol.

Complex carbohydrates include

I. Starchy foods
II. Fibre-rich foods

I. Now when I say starchy carbohydrates, the first thing that comes to our minds is rice or potatoes. But starchy carbs also include cereals, whole pulses and root vegetables.

a) All cereals like wheat, corn, millet, barley, rice, brown rice etc. contain the same amount of calories, vitamin B and fibre. Wheat flour or brown rice has fibre and vitamin B too. However, refined cereals like polished rice, refined flour (maida) contain only starch aka calories.

So despite containing the same amount of calories, wheat bread is a healthier option than rice because it provides stable release of sugar into the body and gives a feeling of satiety.

b) The second important source of starch is the whole pulse family. These include dry beans like lima beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), soybeans and kala chana. These are high in protein and fibre.

c) Root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yam etc. are a healthy menu choice when they’re not cooked in too much salt or fat. They’re a good source of energy, fibre, vitamin B and potassium.

II. Fibre-rich carbohydrates are found in plant cells like vegetables, bran and oats which cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and so it passes through the body undigested. Fibre is essential in keeping the digestive tract clean and to flush out toxins, which itself is a step towards getting rid of excess flab.

Fibre comes in two varieties:

Soluble fibre dissolves in water, e.g. oats and pulses. Oats are an excellent means of shedding extra weight in a short span of time because this soluble fibre binds to fatty substances in the intestines and carries them out as a waste, thus lowering Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol. It also helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping keep hunger and blood sugar in check.

Insoluble fibre helps push food through the intestinal tract and prevent constipation. Some examples would be wheat, corn, vegetables and bran.

So carbohydrates don’t necessarily make me fat?

That’s correct. All you need to ensure is that you consume more complex carbohydrates. However, they must be eaten in a moderate quantity if you don’t want to pile on the pounds.

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