Poor old carbs – they have certainly copped a beating over the past few years. Blamed for a range of health issues ranging from obesity to neurological disorders it is important to remember that we are talking about a humble grain or vegetable here as opposed to a deadly virus that is ‘out to get us’. When it comes to carbs, there are two important things to remember, the first is that the body requires a certain amount of carbohydrate to fuel the brain and the muscles. Secondly, the issue is not carbs themselves but what humans do to them – it is the heavy processing that tends to strip our carbs of essential nutrients, and it is the processing that sees them digested far more rapidly than we would if we consumed them in their natural state.
So before you ditch all of the carbs from your diet, here are some of the best nutritionally, and a few of the ones that are best consumed occasionally:
Also known as pulses, this group includes beans and peas such as chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils and soybeans and are a rich source of protein, fibre, iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium and essential fats and traditionally form the basis of a number of diets around the world. Often referred to as the protein of vegetarians, a ½ cup serve of legumes offers 6-8g of protein, as well as 10-12g of slowly digested, low GI carbs. Low GI carbs support weight control long term as they help to control the release of the hormone insulin in the blood stream. Lower insulin levels help to control fat metabolism as well as hunger and appetite, supporting fullness after eating. While there are some individuals who cannot tolerate legumes, for those who have no issue, adding a ½ cup serves of legumes to a meal achieves a perfect carb / protein balance via a nutrient rich food group.
The less processed the cereal grain, the higher the nutrient content it will have and this is the case with oats. Packed full of protein (5g per ½ cup serve), magnesium, zinc and B group vitamins, a single serve of oats each day also provides you with a substantial amount of soluble fibre; the type of fibre known to help reduce blood cholesterol levels and oats have one of the lowest GI’s of all grains. Look for the coarsest oats you can find, rather than the ‘quick cook’ varieties and team with plenty of low fat milk and a little cinnamon rather than adding honey or sugar when making your daily breakie oats.
Rarely heard off a few years back, quinoa is often referred to as a ‘superfood’, with its high protein content and low GI and is actually a seed as opposed to a grain. The truth is that while quinoa has a number of nutritional benefits, it is still a carbohydrate rich seed with a similar nutritional profile to brown rice. With 19g of total carbs and 4g of protein per 1/2 cup serve, quinoa can be a great addition to salads or made into a side for casseroles and meat dishes. Quinoa is gluten free, rich in iron, magnesium, fibre and zinc and is a particularly good choice for vegetarians as it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. As with any carbohydrate rich food, the key to remain mindful of portion sizes, and just ½ a cup of cooked quinoa is a serve.
The rich colour of sweet potato or ‘kumara’ is a strong indication of its high nutrient content, in particular beta carotene, an antioxidant that is converted into Vitamin A in the body. Sweet potato is also packed with Vitamins B6 and C, fibre, Vitamin E and magnesium and is best cooked using a little Extra Virgin Olive Oil to help maximise nutrient absorption. Per ½ cup serve, sweet potato contains 5g of fibre and 24g of carbohydrate. Even though the carbohydrates in sweet potato are low GI, the density of sweet potato means that you still need to be mindful of your portions if weight control is your goal.
The ones to avoid:
With a single cup of cooked short grain rice giving a massive 58g of total carbohydrate (2 small slices of grain bread gives ~24g), you would want to be burning a whole lot of calories each day if you include white rice in your diet in large quantities regularly. White rice is milled and as such has the husk, bran and germ of the grain removed. Unfortunately, this processing also removes key nutrients from the rice including B group vitamins, iron and a number of other minerals. Nutritionally the biggest issue with white rice is that it has an extremely high GI, which sees rapid increases in blood glucose levels. High blood glucose levels are linked to weight gain and increase risk of developing diabetes long term.
Please notice that this specifically refers to mashed potato, not all potato. In fact, a roasted potato in its jacket can be a portion controlled nutrient rich carbohydrate addition to meals. Mashed potato on the other hand not only tends to have added fat but removing the skin and concentrating the white potato leaves a high GI carbohydrate that is easy to overeat.
Similar in the way that white rice has been processed to an extent that the nutrient content is significantly reduced, so too is the case with white bread. The refined white flour that makes white bread not only lacks the nutritional density of a grain or even wholemeal bread, but white bread has an extremely high GI, meaning it is less filling and leaves individuals prone to fluctuating blood glucose levels after eating it. As bread is a staple food, it pays nutritionally to invest in the best quality foods you can, and when it comes to the nutritional quality of bread, you cannot go past grain bread, and if you must choose white bread, at least invest in a good quality sourdough loaf, which has a lower GI than regular white bread.
Flaked and puffed cereals
With the exception of heavy bran based flakes, as a general rule of thumb, if your breakfast cereal is a puff or a flake, it has been pretty heavily processed and adding back in all the vitamins and minerals processing originally removed does not make it a good choice nutritionally. Flaked or puffed cereals either tend to be high GI, quickly digested carbohydrates such as a corn flake or rice puff, or they have plenty of sugars and salts added to make them taste better. As a general rule of thumb, if you cannot see a wholegrain in your breakfast cereal, it is probably not a great choice nutritionally.