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What the heck are carbs!? And should I avoid them?

Eat carbs, don't eat carbs. Carbs make you fat. Only eat low GI carbs. How on earth are we meant to know what on earth to eat? And what is a GI anyway? I'll give you a hint; it's not an action figure (hands up kids of the 80's who get that joke!?)

Ok, so here's the scoop. Our bodies need carbohydrates to function. In fact, it's our bodies preferred source of energy. Carbohydrates are found naturally in foods like fruit, vegtables, pasta, bread and dairy products (also known as complex carbohydrates or low GI carbs). They're also found in sugary processed foods like ice-cream, cakes, lollies and sweets, fruit juice, soft drink and cordial (also known as simple carbohydrates or high GI carbs).

Our bodies use these foods to make glucose, a type of sugar which can be used right away for energy, or stored for later.

As you may already know, not all carbs are created equal. Dietitian, media personality and author of 'The Nude Nutritionist - stop obsessing about food and never diet again' says:

'Carbohydrates can be nutritious and are a great source of fibre. By choosing healthier slower-burning and less processed carbs over refines options, you'll naturally fill up, sideline your cravings and have the energy to do the things you love.'

So what is GI?

Lyndi says:

'The Glycemic Index is a measure of how quickly foods with carbohydrates are digested and how they affect your blood-sugar levels. The lower glycemic index of a food, the more steady and long lasting the energy. Smart carbs tend to be low GI while fast carbs cause big spikes (followed by plummeting lows) in your blood sugar levels, leaving you feeling moody, tired and irritable. Look for low GI options, but bear in mind that low GI doesn't always mean healthy so consider the overall nutrition of the product.

Slow burning or 'smart' carbohydrates (also referred to as complex or low GI carbs) give you longer-lasting energy, help keep you feeling full, push away the cravings, leave you feeling satisfied and prevent energy slumps. Smart carbs tend to be less-refined wholefoods, closer to their natural state.'

Ever smashed a slurpee and then wondered why you feel all buzzy for a while, only to feel like you want to curl up and take a nap shortly after? This is because the high GI or simple carbs, give your blood sugar a massive spike, but leave your system just as quickly, leaving you feeling low in energy.

Click on the image to the left for more details on Glycemic Index from the Glycemic Index Foundation

What happens if I consume too many carbs?

Essentially it will be stored as fat. When you eat carbohydrates, your body releases a hormone called insulin. Think of insulin like the little boats that carry the glucose to your cells to be burned as energy. The cells (let's think of these as tiny islands) only have a certain capacity for glucose storage and so, once the cells have reached their capacity, the island is full and the insulin 'boats' need to be rerouted somewhere else.

Where do they go?

They head to the liver, which will then most likely convert the glucose to fatty acids called triglycerides. These will then be stored in the fat cells, which have an unlimited storage capacity. So if insulin are the boats that carry glucose and our 'energy burning' cells are tiny islands with a limited capacity, our fat cells are like a giant continent that will just keep getting bigger the more fatty acids get sent there.

In short, if you consume more carbs than you can burn, it will be stored as fat.

How do I choose the 'right' carbs?

Here's some examples of smart or low GI carbs

  • Vegetables such as Sweet potato, corn & peas

  • Wholegrains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, freekeh & rye

  • Beans and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, blackbeans & canellini beans

  • Wholegrain bread

  • Unsweetened dairy such as milk and plain yoghurt

What are some to steer clear of?

There's no such thing as bad carbohydrates, but there is plenty that you should put into the 'sometimes foods' category. Some examples are:

  • Lollies and sweets

  • Chocolates

  • Soft drinks and cordials

  • Cakes and pastries

  • Ice cream or other sweetened dairy products like flavoured milk or sweetened yoghurt

  • Fruit juice

  • Sugary breakfast cereals

  • White bread, rice and pasta

How much carbs should I eat?

Dietitian, media personality and specialist pediatric nutritionist Kathryn Hawkins recommends that approx 1/3 of a teens diet should come from complex or low GI carbs. The other two thirds should roughly consist of 1/3 protein and 1/3 non-starchy vegetables.

For adults it's roughly 1/2 non-starchy veg and 1/4 protein, 1/4 low GI carbs.

In both instances it's important to listen to your body and if you are more active, you may need to add a little more carbohydrates to your snack to keep you going throughout the day. Especially for kids and teens playing sport or doing regular activities.

So to sum up, all carbs are fine. Just choose complex, low GI options and make sure you're only getting approx 1/3 of your energy from carbohydrates each day (1/4 if you're an adult) and only consume simple or high GI carbs occasionally.

This article was written by Kate Hickey for Empower360 Fitness. If you'd like more information on our online or teen bootcamp programs, head to our website or for info on 1:1 virtual health coaching contact Kate:

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