Understanding Food Labels; Part 3, Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates provide the most readily available energy source for your body and contribute to the largest proportion of your daily energy intake. Carbohydrates can be classified as either simple carbohydrates (sugars) or complex carbohydrates (starch).  Simple carbohydrates are foods such as fruit, biscuits, and fizzy drinks where as complex carbohydrates are typically grains, pastas, rice and potatoes.  Some of the simple carbohydrates are naturally occurring such as the sugars in fruit which contain many great vitamins and minerals. However the added sugars found in fizzy drinks and sweets are not the same and contain little if no nutritional value at all.

The carbohydrate food you eat will at some point end up as glucose and will either be used as energy or will be stored in the muscles or liver. The speed at which this process happens depends upon the food, with some being converted rapidly whilst others more steadily. The Glycemic Index is a measure of the rise of glucose levels in your blood after consuming a carbohydrate food. Carbohydrate foods are scored on a scale of 1-100 with pure glucose obtaining the top score of 100. Foods are then ranked or given a score in comparison to the standard of pure glucose. For example kidney beans appear very low (23) and white bread very high (70).  

Research to date suggests that low GI carbohydrate foods may have beneficial effects on health compared to a typical ‘western diet’ comprising high GI, convenience foods. It appears that low GI foods are more satiating, resulting in delayed hunger and a subsequent decrease in food consumption. In other words the low GI foods keep you fuller for longer. This has a knock on effect in that those consuming a low GI diet are less susceptible to weight gain and result in greater fat loss compared to high GI.

As being overweight or obese increases the risk factor for many chronic diseases eating low GI to prevent weight gain becomes even more important. In fact a low GI diet is associated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes where as a high GI diet may increased risk. Furthermore the GI may also have a role to play in reducing the risk for some cancers. Chronic insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia brought on by a high GI diet seem to encourage insulin like growth factors (IGF) which have been associated in the pathology of colon, breast, prostate and ovarian cancer. Although this points to a possible role for low GI dietary intervention, studies thus far have been mixed with some reporting little or no association between risk factors and GI.

So in the aisles reach for wholesome foods, try grained bread instead of white bread. Go for basmati or wholegrain versions rather than white rice. How about eating whole fruit or pure fruit juice (nothing other than fruit in it) than fizzy drinks ? Porridge, muesli or a bran cereal in place of a sugary branded variety. Remember adding protein or fat to a carbohydrate meal will also lower its overal GI. So having chicken or fish with rice and vegetables will lower the GI even more!!



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