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May 27, 2014

Importance of carbohydrates in the diet

by Helene van den Berg

The human body is designed to run on carbohydrates – we can use fat and protein for energy, but carbohydrate is the easiest fuel. Considering genetic background, nutritionists favor a diet with 50% calories from unrefined, complex carbohydrates (whole-grain products, legumes, soybeans etc), 20% from fat (those rich in omega-3 fatty acids) and 30% from protein (mainly vegetable protein).

NOTE: The TYPE of carbohydrate and protein is more important than the protein–to–carbohydrate RATIO in the diet. Starch, high in fiber, along with vegetable protein, has a more positive effect on the blood glucose levels and insulin release, than simply varying the protein-to-carbohydrate ratio of the diet.

Regional factors and economic considerations may force a higher proportion of carbohydrates in many diets. The most important consideration is that the diet assures an:

  • Adequate vitamin and mineral intake
  • Contains sufficient fat – to supply the essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins
  • Sufficient level of protein.
  • Fulfill the needs for growth, defence mechanisms, tissue repair and maintenance.

An ideal intake of fibre is not less than 35 grams per day. The danger of adding wheat bran to a nutrient-poor diet, is that wheat bran contains high levels of phytate, which reduces the absorption of essential minerals, including zinc. It is best to get fibre from mixed sources of oats, beans, seeds, fruits and raw/lightly cooked vegetables. NOTE: much of the fibre in vegetables is destroyed by cooking, so they are best eaten crunchy.

To ensure you get enough of the right kinds of carbohydrates, eat:

  • Whole foods – whole grains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables. Avoid refined carbohydrates, white foods (white rice, white bread) and overcooked foods.
  • Five servings/day of dark green, leafy and root vegetables e.g. green beans, spinach, brussels sprouts, carrots, sweet potatoes – raw/lightly cooked.
  • Three or more servings/day of fresh fruits. The fructose in fruit needs no digesting, enters the bloodstream quickly, like glucose or sucrose, but it is classified as slow-releasing. The body can’t use fructose as it is, since cells only run on glucose; therefore fructose is converted to glucose, which slows down the sugar’s effect on the metabolism. Grapes and dates contain pure glucose and are faster releasing. Apples contain mainly fructose and are slow-releasing. Bananas contain both and raise blood sugar levels quite speedily. Eat dried fruits in small quantities and infrequently (soak them).
  • Four or more servings/day of whole grains e.g. millet, quinoa, rye, whole wheat, oats, rice , pasta etc.
  • Avoid any form of sugar/ added sugar. Humans are naturally attracted to the sweetness in carbohydrates, but it is the concentrated form, that is bad news e.g. white sugar, brown sugar, honey, syrup, glucose are fast releasing, causing a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. If this sugar is not required by the body, it is stored and emerges as fat. Most concentrated forms of sugar are devoid of vitamins and minerals, unlike the fruit sugars. White sugar has 90% of it’s vitamins and minerals removed. Without vitamins and minerals our metabolism becomes inefficient, contributing to poor energy and poor weight control.
  • 6-8 glasses of water daily; dilute fruit juices;
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