In this third installment of the Fuel Your Body series we will cover another often misunderstood macronutrient group, carbohydrates.
Simply put, carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of energy. Simple carbohydrates include sugar, enriched wheat flour, white rice, and to an extent white potatoes. Simple carbs have very little nutritional value and after sending your insulin levels through the roof, they find a nice home fitting comfortably around your waist. Complex carbohydrates on the other hand are packed full of nutritional value and provide sustained energy because they digest in your body slowly. They include whole grain wheat, brown rice, sweet potatoes, green vegetables and more. It is true that too many carbohydrates can add unwanted pounds if consumed in excess and not used up as energy. However, it is much more important to be concerned with the quality of the carbohydrates you consume than the amount.
Vegetables – The health benefits of vegetables (especially the green leafy type) are no secret, despite the fact that most Americans only incorporate a fraction of the needed amount into their diet. What is not as widespread knowledge however, is the importance of eating fresh vegetables, and also the importance of eating them raw. I’m not suggesting that you eat raw vegetables exclusively, as this makes for a terrible stir-fry, but the cooking process robs food of important enzymes and phytonutrients. Eat as many green vegetables as you can. They are simple carbs, so they won’t be stored as fat. The canning process can rob vegetables of some of their nutrients, and can liners can increase BPA exposure. Frozen vegetables are often more nutritious than their fresh conventional counterparts because they are picked ripe and then frozen, as opposed to being picked in an ripened state and shipped around the world. Organic is great, but local foods can be more important for you to eat because they are picked ripe and get to your plate faster, thus retaining their vital nutrients.
Sweet Potato – Sweet potatoes are an excellent sustained energy source, and are light years ahead of their white potato cousins when it comes to nutritional value. They earn a place right next to chicken breast when it comes to muscle building foods. Also, because they turn to blood sugar slowly in your body, they won’t spike insulin levels, a major stumbling point in many people’s efforts to lose body fat.
Whole Grains – The term “whole grain” refers to a grain being left intact throughout the production process. Unlike the traditional milling process used for thousands of years, today’s enrichment process heats the grain and removes it’s germ and bran (90% of it’s total nutrition), leaving only the angiosperm. This is great for making inexpensive bright white dough, but has little to offer your body, other than empty carbohydrates that immediately turn to sugar after you eat them! The lack of nutritional value in enriched grains is so severe that farmers have reported bugs not being able to survive on enriched grains in silos! To make matters worse, almost all the wheat products Americans eat are enriched! Remember “whole grain” is the term you want to see on the package. Not “wheat”, “whole wheat”, “12-grain”, or any other names companies use to deceptively portray enriched empty carbohydrates as “healthy”. Whole grains are excellent sources of sustained energy. This is because your body converts the whole grain’s in-tact structure to sugar much slower than the enriched counterpart. Taking whole grains one step further up the nutrition spectrum are sprouted grain products. These are products (usually bread) that are made with grains that are not only whole, but have also begun to sprout. This give a big boost to their nutritional value, both in protein and fiber. Sprouted grain breads can be found in your local grocery store’s freezer section.
Oatmeal – Oatmeal is about as good a carbohydrate as you can find for breakfast. I can absolutely see a difference in the gym if I forget to eat it before I work out. Whole grain, heart healthy, and not bad tasting with some milk and three or four stevia packets. Eat them as hearty as you can stand ‘em. The steel cut variety can be tough to fit into your morning routine as it takes 30 minutes to cook, but the best for your body. If that’s unrealistic, go for the old fashioned variety. They only take about 2 and a half minutes in the microwave, and you can usually find a canister of the store brand organic for the same price as name brand conventional. Stick with the old fashioned type, as the instant type that comes in the packets is usually packed with unpleasant extras.
Quinoa – Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is an amazing little seed that deserves some mention. Used like a grain, it has been used in Central America since the before the Incas. Cook and use it in the same way you do rice. Important to note is that quinoa is one of the few single vegetarian sources of all the essential amino acids. This is almost unheard of in the vegetarian world. Even better though is that my kids love the whole grain quinoa/wheat blend spaghetti noodles you can find in your supermarket’s organic pasta section.
Brown Rice – I know. We all like to eat white rice. But because it goes through the same enriching process that white flour does (having the germ and bran stripped away), the rice grain loses the majority of it’s nutritional value. Whole grain brown rice on the other hand is white rice with the entire grain in tact, and is a nutritional powerhouse that will provide excellent energy throughout the day. I’ll admit that it took me a little while for me to warm up to brown rice, but after a while you do. It is amazing how your tastes can change when your body begins to realize that a new, healthier food is benefiting it. I often don’t even notice a difference between the two anymore.
Stevia – Stevia is an all-natural no calorie sweetener that has a very low glycemic index, It’s natural because it comes from the Stevia plant. You can get the plant at your local hardware store and use its leaves to sweeten up drinks and dishes, or you can buy stevia in powder form. Truvia is my favorite brand of stevia because it is granulated like sugar. It is a lot easier than you might think to replace the sugar or artificial sweetener you use in your coffee and in cooking with stevia. And with the Truvia brand in particular being so similar to sugar, you just may not even know the difference. But believe me, your body will! Agave Nectar – Another natural sweetener that deserves mention is agave nectar. Agave is the same cactus that is fermented to make tequila. The nectar of the cactus has a sweet flavor, and is a great alternative to honey. It should be noted that although agave nectar is not a low calorie food, it is low on the glycemic index, which makes it a great alternative to sugar when trying to lose body fat or to promote general health.
Next time will be spending some time discussing foods to avoid. Stay strong!
- What is a whole grain, really? (alannagregory.com)
- Whole Grains (heatherparentice.wordpress.com)
- Carbs! Which ones? How much? How often? (thenutritionfiles.wordpress.com)
- Whole-grain vs multi-grain which is better? (healthandcare.in)
- 7 Days Full of Quinoa: Here’s How You Can Do it (onegreenplanet.org)