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How Carbohydrates Are Used - Are They a Friend Or Foe?

By Nicola Fourie

A lot of media interest has recently focused on the role of carbohydrates and how carbohydrates are used in our diet. Most of this interest can be attributed to the various high-protein diets on the market, which promote a very low intake of carbohydrates. This resulted in 2 585 low-carb product launches in the US alone last year, and accounted for 17.9% of total product launches in the US alone in 2004.

Since 1999, there has been a steady increase in the promotion of low hydrate products, resulting in the 2004 boom. However, market analysis has shown that the product launches of low-carb products are beginning to drop drastically in the US. This is attributable to a decrease in the number of people following a low-carb diet, because of the diet's ineffectiveness and medical reports warning against low-carb diets.

The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism states that although low-carb diets can be effective in promoting short term weight loss, very little is known about the long-term effects on metabolism, and increased cardiovascular risk. Low carbohydrate diets may result in a series of complications when followed for a long period of time. These include constipation, micro nutrient deficiencies, heart arrhythmias, cardiac impairment, osteoporosis, kidney damage, increased cancer risk, impairment of physical activities, blood lipid abnormalities, and sudden death.

On the positive side, the trend towards low-carb dieting has meant that many consumers have gained a greater understanding of carbohydrates and their effects on the body. Many have learnt about the Glycaemic Index (Gl), which ranks carbohydrate-rich food according to the effect it has on blood glucose levels. (The reference here is glucose, to which a GI value of 100 has been assigned). Scientific investigation shows that a high intake of high Gl foods has less of an effect on suppressing appetite, and a reduced ability to induce satisfaction after eating, than foods with a lower GI. Diets high in low GI carbohydrates can be associated with lower plasma HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) and insulin resistance. High carbohydrate intake from low Gl sources may also increase fat oxidation.

How carbohydrates are used- Which foods have a low GI?

Examples of low GI foods include whole grain products, legumes, nuts and seeds. Consuming these foods raises blood glucose levels in a slower, more controlled way. Low GI foods are marked with the satiety smart symbol in the Target Plus. This is beneficial for everyone, including those with normal fasting blood glucose levels.

The consumption of whole grains is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), and is linked to protection against ischaemic strokes, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity and early death. Those foods marked as being high in fibre in the Target Plus, are the best to choose.

Legumes are another low GI food, showing an 8% reduction in risk of early death for every 20g increase in daily intake. Nuts are also a low GI food whose affect on appetite may assist weight maintenance. It has been found that increased nut consumption tallies with lower body weight.

Substitution of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) for saturated fat (SFA), or even carbohydrates, can have beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity. In addition, a diet containing higher amounts of MUFA, as opposed to SFA, appears to protect against premature death, and may help guard against breast cancer. Foods rich in MUFA include olives, olive oil, canola oil and avocado pears. Choose the fats marked with a heart symbol in the Target Plus.

So, we can see that how carbohydrates are used in our body need not be the foe, but can actually be our friend, provided we eat the right types, in the correct quantities.

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