Carbs. We all love them, some of us eat too many, some of us eat too little, a few of us fear them, but most of us really misunderstand them. For most of my life, I believed that a carbohydrate was a grain. In my mind, carbohydrates were things like bread, pasta, rice, crackers, potato chips, potatoes, cereal and most things that were white in colour. When I discovered that root vegetables like sweet potato and carrots were actually a source of carbohydrates, it blew my mind. When I found out that fruits such as apples and bananas were technically carbs, I felt like I had been lied to my entire life. When I found out that milk and beans were both a source of carbs, I was downright confused. When my friend Karen from Good Clean Chow told me that avocados were even a source of carbohydrate, I was totally gobsmacked. My entire life flashed before my eyes. Okay, maybe I am being a little dramatic here, but I will never look at foods such as apples or chickpeas in the same way again. When we talk about ‘carbs,’ we are really talking about the foods that give our body energy. Simply put, carbohydrates come in three forms: (1) sugars, (2) starches, and (3) fibres. When we consume high-carb foods, our body converts these foods into glucose and burns that glucose fuel for energy. Suddenly, I remember when I tried to help my mom reduce her intake of refined carbohydrates (i.e. cake) and early on, she succumbed to her cravings and told me, “You don’t understand, I NEED this!” Well, actually, I do understand because like many of you, I too have experienced the dreaded carb cravings. These cravings are your body telling you that it needs fuel to burn for energy. The problem is that many of us interpret these cravings as actual hunger and end up overeating as a result, or over-consuming carbohydrates when we should either be drinking more water or eating more protein. The majority of the population tops up their body’s fuel supply with high-sugar foods like candy that the body can source energy from rapidly, caffeine, or processed grains, which are digested very quickly and give the body the instant boost it needs. What we really should be doing is eating healthier forms of carbohydrates such as beans, legumes, and root vegetables that digest slowly and will fuel us for a longer period of time. The third type of carbohydrate, a fibre, is possibly the most important as we need fibre to ensure digestive health and ‘waste management’ as we shall so politely call it. Raw porridge oats, beans, and vegetables such as broccoli and brussels sprouts are great sources of fibre. When I was first starting out with healthy eating in 2008, I started eating cereals and granola bars made by a company named ‘Fibre One’ which were foods fortified with extra fibre, and were popular in the US market at the time. The difference was incredible. I consumed much less food and many of my bowel problems (to put it politely) ironed themselves out. Now, I get my fibre from completely natural sources but even still, often I don’t get enough. However, I am working on it!
Sugar is a carbohydrate. Eating “Five a Day” in the form of five apples contains a whopping 125g of sugar. If you ate three bananas a day, your total sugar consumption from those bananas alone would be 54g. In fact, an apple contains the same amount of sugar as a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate bar! Now, before you freak out and trade in all your fruit for chocolate, obviously this sugar comes in different forms. In the chocolate bar, it is that white refined sugar that, in my opinion, is the heroin of the food world. In the apple, it is naturally occurring sugars in the form of fructose, which isn’t processed but is still a carbohydrates. Apples, Bananans, Oats, grains and simple carbohydrates are what I call ‘Fuel foods.’ If you are an extremely active person, you will need to eat more carbs than the average individual. Marathon runners and athletes who engage in a high amount of cardio would tend to eat a diet higher in carbs since their body is burning a heck of a lot of energy. Some people recommend eating carbs before a workout to boost your energy levels so you can power through the workout without feeling tired or sore. Personally, I find this works well for me right now but I always eat the same pre-workout meal; 25-30g of oats. A trainer recently told me it is essential to eat carbs after a workout, especially if you have been lifting heavy, since your muscles need to restore their glucose (available energy) and glycogen (stored energy) levels, which are severely depleted after a hard workout. Now, I make sure to get my carbs and protein in within 30 minutes of working out. This morning I had an incredible “milkshake” containing: 1/2 banana, 1/2 tbsp Meridian peanut butter, 100g Total 0% Greek Yoghurt, 1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 scoop PhD Diet Whey Vanilla Creme, and approx. 1 cup Alpro unsweetened almond milk. This was one of the most delicious shakes I have EVER made and it completely refuelled me after my post-legs-day 10K.
Diets low in carbohydrates have worked really well for some people but not so well for others. If you think about the average American or UK diet, it is extremely carb-heavy. When I was at university, I ate cereal for breakfast, a sandwich and crisps for lunch, and pasta for dinner. That is literally 90% carbohydrates! When I was living in the United States, they served bread with the pasta at lunch and many Mexican restaurants served their meals with tortillas, chips, beans and rice. Carbs on carbs on carbs. So, for the past 5-6 months, I have been eating a diet a much lower in carbs and have been trying carb-cycling. Carb-cycling is where you eat low-carb for most of the week and then re-feed your body with carbohydrates either 1 or 2 days a week. The goal is to put your body into ketosis (fat-burning mode as opposed to carb-burning mode) for a couple of days a week so as to burn more fat and as a result, lose weight. On a low-carb diet, the cravings can be pretty intense and if you have too many low-carb days, your body can end up feeling tired and completely depleted. This is why I would suggest that you play around with the amount of carbs in your diet. Listen to your body and if your body is telling you that it is exhausted, depleted, and starved, then it is probably time for a high-carb day. Some women have reported going low-carb, or paleo, for a prolonged period of time and actually losing their menstrual cycle (a condition called amenorrhea) and experiencing hormonal issues. For this reason, I would recommend exercising caution if you are going to eat low-carb in the long-term. But, as always, listen to your body and experiment, but do so safely and consult a doctor, trainer or nutritionist if you are unsure. This article is a fantastic resource if you are seeking to learn more about this subject. Finally, I would like to share that I have been doing a low-carb, no-sugar diet for the past three days in a row and the cravings have been insane. On Day 1, I was totally fine and trained my upper body, interspersing some HIIT training into my workout. My protein intake was pretty high with eggs, protein powder, and tuna on the menu, with a lot of veggies. On Day 2, I did legs and was craving carbs like some sort of food crack addict. On Day 3, I ran a 10K and had a tiny amount of carbs in the form of 1/2 a banana and some blueberries after my run (because I think I wouldn’t have made it through the day if I hadn’t) but in the afternoon, I wandered around the supermarket googling candy, chocolate, cake and all sorts of high-sugar foods. However, instead, I came home, ate two dates, 150g greek yoghurt, some protein powder and some peanuts instead. My biggest problem is refined sugar as I have a sweet tooth and I love candy, as most of my readers will know. However, if I can succeed at this 21 day ban on refined sugar, I will be able to put a stop to my sugar binges and potentially give up candy forever, or at least cut down the sweet treats to once a fortnight or once a month rather than once or twice a week. As always, I will keep you posted and if you too are thinking of trying some low-carb meals, check out my Instagram and Facebook pages for some fabulous recipes and some food and fitness tips. See you soon!