How smart carbs help you lose weight and boost your health and energy

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Monday, 27 August 2012.
Tagged: carbohydrates, energy, weight loss

How smart carbs help you lose weight and boost your health and energy

Think of a loaf of soft white bread or a hamburger bun. It's soft, nice to eat and easy to swallow. You can probably wolf down two or three slices with butter or jam in a couple of minutes - no worries. That's the problem. Today's modern carbs are too easy to eat. They've had their fibre removed so they're soft, require no chewing. Before you know it, you've swallowed 1600kJ (400 Cals).

Then they enter the bloodstream rapidly, causing your blood sugar to do a sudden spike which then triggers a surge of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that turns a key in the cells of your muscles, allowing all that sugar to get into the muscle and power them with fuel. But it also directs any unused sugar into storage - in your fat cells.

The end result: you eat more than you realize but you don't feel satisfied, so you're looking around for a snack an hour later. Your body had to call on more insulin and so another gram or two of fat has been laid down.

Why the wrong carbs make us fat

Our modern-day staples like white bread, white rice and potato are refined foods that quickly digested and absorbed into the body - they release a surge of blood sugar when then calls for a ‘rapid response' from the hormone insulin to clear the sugar out of your bloodstream and into your muscles. This means that a couple of hours later, you're hungry again, and looking for a quick snack to carry you over to the next meal.

What this means is that dieters would do better on whole grain or low GI versions of any carbohydrate - grainy bread, brown rice, jacket potato with the skin plus pasta, legumes and starchy vegetables. These carbohydrates will make you feel fuller BEFORE you've overeaten and ‘stick with you' for longer after a meal.

7 reasons to steer clear of modern carbs

White bread, white rice, potato and many breakfast cereals are:

  1. Refined - a percentage of their original nutrients have been removed
  2. Low in fibre
  3. Kilojoule-dense - 100 grams of boiled white rice packs in 490 kJ while 100 grams of full-fat yoghurt has only 390 and oranges a tiny 180
  4. Easy to overconsume (they don't ‘fill you up') 
  5. Have a high GI - they are digested and absorbed quickly
  6. A ‘vehicle' for carrying fat - think of how much oil, cheese or cream you can add to potato mash or fried rice OR how much butter you can spread onto bread
  7. Many carry a great deal of ‘hidden fat' - think of biscuits, croissants, doughnuts, potato chips and fries.

Good carbs - what to look for

Here's what you should look for when deciding what to buy in breads, cereals, rice, pasta, savoury biscuits or muesli bars.

Ideally, a ‘smart' carb should be:

  1. nutrient-dense (meaning it's packed full with essential vitamins, minerals and fibre)
  2. wholegrain (meaning it contains the three key parts of the grain - the bran, germ and endosperm)
  3. slowly-absorbed (has a low GI number of 55 or less) which helps counter obesity.
    high-fibre for regularity and bowel health 

Choose your carbs

Here are the smart carbs from every nutritionist's list. Try to select carbs from the top which are healthier choices and better for weight loss.

  • Oats
  • Cereals - whole grain, bran, high fibre
  • Breads - mixed grain, wholemeal, dark rye, linseed and soy
  • Legumes - beans, lentils, spilt peas
  • Starchy vegetables - corn, peas, carrots, sweet potato, etc
  • Pasta, noodles
  • Rice , basmati or Doongara

Further down the list would come:

  • Potato - because it's high GI
  • Couscous, polenta
  • Bread, white including tortillas and lavash flatbreads
  • Cereals - refined rolled or flaked types
  • Rice, calrose or jasmine

Bottom line - Cut down, don't cut out!

There's no need to cut out ALL carbs. Take a look at what carbs you like to eat and which are the good ones to keep. You may love bread but don't care too much for rice or potato. Or you may simply cut down the SIZE of the all the carbohydrate portions you serve:

1. Avoid the ‘junk' carbs like soft drinks, sweets, cakes and biscuits.

2. Look at the bread you regularly buy. If it's white, it's not as filling or nutritious as a good grainy loaf or chewy wholemeal bread.

3. Swap your breakfast cereal from one made from oats (muesli or porridge) or whole wheat (wheatflake biscuits, wheat flakes) or bran (all-bran, bran flakes). A bowl at breakfast is convenient and healthy and will keep your bowels working well.

4. Check how much potato and rice you serve up for dinner. One medium potato or half a cup of rice should balance out your meal without overloading you with carbs. Certain vegetables contain higher carbohydrate values but are still nutritious. Just have a small serve of pumpkin, carrots, corn and peas.

5. Include two pieces of fruit a day. Skip juice which has had its fibre removed and is too easy to overconsume. Drink water and eat the whole fruit instead.

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.