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Carbohydrates – a simple or complex debate?

Carbs are a hotly debated topic – apart from the old wives tales and myths, the running & fitness magazines are full of dietary tips and hints and carbohydrates get a lot of exposure both positive and negative.  Carbs have had a bit of a bad press of late.   We have special diets and recipes telling us one thing then are faced with the array of tubes, packets and boxes on the supermarket shelves all telling us what is in our food in different ways.   There is so much information being thrown at us that it is no wonder we are all a bit confused.  Of course, then there are always those who will quote what they believe to be true or love to share what works for them – and why not – the sporting community might be competitive but we do look after our own!   One thing is for certain, what we eat can have a huge impact on our physical well-being.

As sports persons we need to know what we need and when we need it to perform our best every time we get active. We also want to have an easy life and not spend hours slaving in the kitchen preparing complicated meals when we are on the run or just back from one! The battle of carbohydrate versus protein is just another distraction that takes us off our course and leaves us wondering what we should take in to keep our fitness levels fine tuned.

So what exactly is a Carbohydrate?  If you remember your school days, there are simple carbs and complex carbs. Carbohydrates are one of three nutrients that form a large part of our diet found in food – the others being fat and protein. Hardly any foods contain only one nutrient and most are a combination of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in varying amounts. There are three different types of carbohydrates found in food: sugar, starch and fibre.

Sugar is found naturally in some foods, including fruit, honey, fruit juices, milk (lactose) and vegetables. Other forms of sugar can be added to food and drink such as confectionary, biscuits and soft drinks during manufacture, or we can add when cooking or baking at home.

Starch is actually made up of many sugar units comprised together and is found in foods that come from plants. Starchy foods, such as bread, rice, pasta and potatoes, provide a slow and steady release of energy throughout the day.

Fibre is the name given to the diverse range of compounds found in the cell walls of foods that come from plants. Good sources of fibre include vegetables with skins on, wholegrain bread, whole wheat pasta and pulses (beans and lentils).

Being a time poor veggie, I am particularly fond of ingredients that provide a one stop shop of a healthy balance of calories, carbs, protein, fibre and fat. I often turn to those that are readily available from my local supermarket such as Quinoa, Bulgar Wheat, Durum Wheat (Macaroni), Whole Barley, Coucous (I love the giant variety), and if you hunt you can also get those less well known ones such as Cassava, Sago, Millet, Taro and Buckwheat (which can be a nice alternative to rice).  All of these contain carbohydrates and can be used as the basis for some brilliant and mouth watering recipies that don’t take hours to prepare but will keep well in the fridge.

Jane Griffin, a Sports Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant in an article entitled “Mood Foods” says that “Carbs are good” (I’m liking this lady) Jane says “The glucose in our blood comes from carbohydrate-rich foods and the body really likes to keep a steady level of blood glucose at all times…. The main sources of simple carbohydrates are fruit and fruit juices, milk and milk products, honey and sugar. Sources of complex carbohydrates include bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, breakfast cereals, pulses and sweetcorn. Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy in the diet, being the primary energy source for exercising muscles, the brain and central nervous system.

Just eating sensibly and not over indulging is the best advice and the bottom line is that Carbs can be good and bad for you. You just need to choose your carbs carefully. Check out this article by Nicole Lana Lee  which I found interesting to read.  It dispels some of the carbohydrate myths and offers some sound advice.

Perhaps just keeping an open mind, a balance of dietary information, a healthy dose of common sense  and eating sensibly will be your recipe for success.

A useless piece of information – did you know that the first known use of the word Carbohydrate was in 1851! We’ve come a long way since then on both the sporting and the dietician front haven’t we.

Got an opinion or do you want to share some advice? We would love to hear from you on this debate – or perhaps you might like to share your favourite recipe.  Please send comments or articles through to*.



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