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Carbs have a rep for being “fattening” and are usually the first to be axed from any diet. But really, they’re not all bad.
“Carbs are not as high in calories as people think,” says Melanie van der Wilk, a dietitian with dietetic practice The Food Clinic. “One gram of carbohydrate contains less calories than one gram of protein or fat.”
But not all carbs are created equal. There are “bad” carbs – refined ones, which are processed through machinery to give them a better texture and shelf life, but are stripped of nutrients like fibre and vitamins in the process. Some culprits are sweets, cakes, white rice and regular pasta, also known as “white pasta”. Too much of these can lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Then there are “good” carbs, which provide more energy, fibre and B vitamins. They rank low on the glycaemic index (GI) – a measure of how quickly a carb-containing food is broken down by your body, raising your blood sugar level. Low-GI carbs are slowly digested, gradually releasing sugars into your bloodstream – so they’ll keep you satiated for longer (read: less snacking). High-GI carbs, however, are digested quickly and cause a spike in your sugar levels, which leads to weight gain and even diabetes.
Look for carbs “as close to their natural state, with no added sugar”, says Melanie. Think fruits, legumes and whole grains like brown rice. “Women who eat high-fibre, wholegrain carbs are less likely to gain weight,” she adds.
Here, we list six must-have carbs, including a few not-so-usual suspects – a cinema snack, anyone?
Unlike other snacks, they’re high in fibre and low in calories. Th ree cups of plain kernels contain around 90 calories – equivalent to a pear. But you must prepare them right. The kinds you get in the cinema are drenched in butter, caramel and salt. The healthy way is to skip the butter and pop the kernels in an air popper (which doesn’t require oil). Flavour them with natural salt, pepper or ground cinnamon.
Surprise: dairy products contain carbs in the form of the milk sugar lactose. A bonus: They’re packed with calcium and proteins, says dietitian Derrick Ong, founder of nutrition consultancy Eat Right. “Yogurt also has probiotics, or good bacteria, which promotes good digestive health.” Pick low-fat yogurt with no added sugar.
3. Wholegrain pasta
Unlike standard pasta, which is made from refined wheat flour, wholegrain versions (also known as “brown pasta”) offer more fibre, proteins and vitamins. They’re also digested more slowly than refined ones, keeping you full for longer. The same goes for brown rice.
4. Fresh fruits
They provide energy and are filled with fibre, minerals and vitamins. “Take the whole fruit rather than the juice, so you won’t miss out on the fibre or exceed the recommended fruit intake,” says Derrick. Aim for two servings a day – one serving is equivalent to an apple or 10 grapes. Don’t overdo it because fruits – especially sweet ones like mangoes – are high in natural sugars.
They contain the complex carbohydrate beta-glucan, which lowers cholesterol and keeps your heart healthy, says Melanie. They’re also a great source of essential fatty acids, vitamin E and other antioxidants.
6. Starchy vegetables
Root vegetables like sweet potato, yam and tapioca have a low-GI value, says Derrick. The exceptions are regular potatoes as they contain a starch that is more quickly digested, leading to a sharper spike in blood sugar levels. Starchy veggies are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. “They can replace refined grains like white rice,” he says. Aim for two or three servings a day – one serving is equivalent to the size of a large corncob.
This story was first published in HerWorld Fit & Fab Issue #1, 2012.