How to Enjoy Carbs without Putting on Weight: Part One

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How to Enjoy Carbs without Putting on Weight: Part One

 

In this first of a series of blog posts on nutrition, we will be begin to explore the three main food groups (also known as macronutrients). We will examine what they are, why the body needs them, and the implications for your everyday eating habits.

Today we are going to start with carbohydrates - the hardest food type to avoid, and commonly misunderstood.

So - what are carbohydrates?  Well, in chemical terms,  carbohydrates (CHO) are molecules which contain a combination of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

There are two main types of carbohydrate.  Simple carbohydrates, also known as sugars, are single units of glucose or fructose (C6H12O6) which have a ring like structure .  Complex carbohydrates, also known as starches, are polymers, or chains, of several sugar units stitched together. Complex carbohydrates are found in potato, bread, pasta, rice etc.  Simple carbohydrates are found in sugar, honey, fruit etc.

Regardless of whether a carbohydrate starts off as complex or simple when it enters the mouth, the digestive process converts all carbohydrates into glucose so that it can be absorbed by the body.

Digestion of carbohydrates begins as soon as the food enters the mouth. As we chew, enzymes in our saliva start the job of breaking down the carbohydrate molecules.

The process continues in the stomach, where the sugar is absorbed into our bloodstream.  If this sugar is not used fully by the body for energy during a short space of time (for example to fuel exercise), then it has to be stored somewhere in the body.

The body will firstly turn the spare glucose into glycogen, a process which involves the retention of a large amount of water. The glycogen is stored in your muscles and liver.  If your glycogen stores are full, you will look puffier (often noticeable in the face) largely due to the water retention.

If your glycogen stores are full, the body has to store the glucose in some other way.  This is when any surplus glucose will be converted into fat.

Most of the fat on our bodies is created this way, not from the direct consumption of fat in our diet. This is a crucial point to understand, as it is the reason why “low fat” products do not help us lose weight.

The same process happens in reverse when we lose weight.  We will burn off our glycogen stores first, then once these are empty we will start to burn fat for energy. However, emptying your glycogen stores is harder than you may realise. If they are completely full to begin with, it can take the equivalent of an entire half-marathon to completely deplete your glycogen. So for most people, in reality the aim is to gradually deplete the stores over a the course of a number of days.  In a typical scenario of sensible eating and exercise at a sustainable level, it may take around a week to get to the point where your glycogen stores are depleted and you start burning significant amounts of fat. However, you will actually lose more weight in that first week than in the following weeks. As you use up the glycogen, you will be releasing all the water stored with it, resulting in dramatic initial weight loss.

In general, the less processed the carbohydrate, and the more fibre and fat also contained within the foodstuff, the longer the process of digestion takes, and the more gradually the energy is released into our bloodstream. This makes it more likely that you will burn the energy released as you go along, avoiding the storage of excess energy as fat.

So how much carbohydrate should we consume? Well, it is definitely not healthy to eliminate carbohydrate altogether, or go on an extreme low-carb diet, such as Atkins, for a number of reasons.

  1. Our brain needs carbohydrate for fuel – carbohydrate is the only form of energy that the brain can use.
  2. Fat burns in a carbohydrate flame. Without the presence of some carbohydrate in your diet, your metabolism slows down and the body is not able to process fat as effectively.
  3. Lots of nutrient-packed foods, such as fruit, contain mainly carbohydrate, so if we avoided all these foods we would be limiting our intake of important vitamins and minerals.
  4. Variety is positive.  Healthy nutritional habits will only be sustained if they are enjoyable and do not become too monotonous.

So which carbohydrate foods should you use as your main source of carbohydrates, and which should you avoid?

In our next nutrition blog post, we'll recommend which carbohydrate dense foods to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, in your diet.  In their place, we will be introducing you too a whole host of more colourful alternatives!

 
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