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How to Choose Carbohydrates

True or false: A carb is a carb is a carb. If you answered "true," you might think all carbohydrate-containing foods are created equal because they all break down into glucose. But they're not all the same. Some carb foods are better for you than others. Knowing how to make better carbohydrate choices means you'll be eating healthier and are likely to have more energy and find it easier to lose weight.

When choosing carbs, it's particularly important to keep in mind the distinction between simple and complex carbs. Simple carbs are digested more quickly and raise blood sugar levels faster and more dramatically. Complex carbs, on the other hand, take the digestive system longer to break down, and so they enter the bloodstream more slowly, raising blood sugar levels gradually. In this article, we will teach how to choose the carbs that are right for you. It's not just a matter of counting carbs, you have to know the good carbs from the bad carbs. Let's begin by looking at how carbohydrates affect weight gain.

Carbs and Weight Gain

carbs and weight gain
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Carbohydrates can greatly affect
weight gain.

Why should you care whether your blood sugar remains steady or has some peaks and valleys? After all, there are all kinds of bodily processes that we remain blissfully unaware of.

There are lots of reasons to be concerned and aware of blood sugar levels. But since the vast majority of us today are looking for weight-loss strategies that work, let's first take a look at the role carbohydrate plays in weight gain and weight loss.

Remember, carbohydrate foods contain sugar, starch, and fiber in various amounts. Simple carbohydrates (such as table sugar and apple juice) only contain sugar, while complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) contain starch and fiber.

You probably don't realize it, but a rapid rise in blood sugar, which is the result of eating a highly refined carbohydrate food, can be a key factor in binge eating and weight gain. Eating any type of carbohydrate food triggers the release of insulin to clear the excess glucose from the bloodstream. But eating a highly refined carbohydrate, particularly a substantial portion of white pasta or a large bagel, can cause the pancreas to pump out even greater amounts of insulin to help restore normal blood sugar levels. If the insulin clears the glucose too quickly, blood sugar levels plummet. When blood sugar levels drop precipitously, the stomach and brain send out hunger signals that compel you to eat more food (glucose) to raise blood sugar levels again. If you once again choose to satisfy your hunger with a simple carbohydrate, you will crave even more sweets. But instead of feeling full and satisfied, you will feel constantly hungry. Ultimately, a diet that contains lots of simple carbs can lead to a vicious cycle of hunger, overeating, and weight gain.

When it comes to losing weight (or preventing weight gain), then, you should primarily eat complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates have many advantages over simple carbs. Complex carbohydrates take longer to be digested, and so they elicit a different type of blood sugar response. They enter the bloodstream more slowly and therefore raise blood sugar levels more gradually. As a result, blood sugar levels tend to remain stable, which means your brain won't get a hunger signal for a much longer period of time. And complex carbohydrates contain fiber (simple carbs do not). Fiber, as you know, isn't digested, so it costs you nary a calorie. Not only that, but fiber adds bulk to your food, so you feel more full and satisfied after eating.

carbs and weight gain
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Complex carbohydrates leave
 you feeling full and tend to
be low in fat.

Keep in mind, too, that you're unlikely to overeat vegetables or grains, all of which have an abundant supply of complex carbohydrate. You'd be hard-pressed to binge on a bowl of carrots or lentil soup. And even if you did, these are still low-calorie foods. The carbohydrate foods that contribute significantly to weight gain are the simple sugars that are usually part of a high-fat package: donuts, cookies, cake, candy, and ice cream. It's not just the carbohydrate in those foods that is responsible for packing on the pounds, it's the fat content, too.

Keep It Low Fat

One caveat: It is certainly possible to turn a low-calorie, complex carbohydrate such as whole-wheat pasta or a baked potato into higher-calorie fare. In fact, it happens all the time. Just spoon some Alfredo sauce on the pasta or add sour cream and butter to the potato. Adding fat to low-calorie, complex carbs does just what it says: It adds fat! Fat has more than twice the number of calories per gram (9) as carbohydrate and protein (both 4). If you serve up fat-laden complex carbs in extra-large portions, you will expand your waistline just as you will with the less nutritious simple carbohydrate foods. By eating the complex carbs, though, you'll still benefit from the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients they contain. Highly refined carbs have nothing to offer except for calories and whatever nutrients were added back through the enrichment process.

The glycemic index can help you choose the right carbs. Keep reading to learn about this helpful tool.


This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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You know the general guidelines for choosing the most beneficial carbohydrates: Pick complex carbohydrates that are packed with nutrients and raise your blood sugar levels gradually. In general, that means choosing whole grains, vegetables, and fruits and avoiding foods with added sugars. But to make the best carbohydrate choices, there is a more precise way to know how a particular food will raise your blood sugar levels. You can use the glycemic index (GI), which is a ranking of foods by how quickly they raise blood sugar levels compared to other foods.

Developed by researchers at the University of Toronto, the GI was originally created to help people with diabetes select foods that would help them better manage their chronic condition. It was well-established that stable blood sugar levels helped reduce the likelihood of developing complications associated with diabetes, such as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), kidney disease, nerve damage, and blindness. But at the time, the conventional wisdom was that all carbohydrate foods had exactly the same effect on blood sugar, even though some studies showed that this was not the case. The researchers set out to show that some carbohydrate foods impact blood sugar more than others.

The glycemic index tells you how fast  certain foods raise blood sugar levels

The glycemic index tells you how
fast certain foods raise blood sugar levels

We now know that while all digested carbohydrates become glucose, different carbohydrate foods have different effects on blood sugar. For people with diabetes, eating a specific amount of total carbohydrate each day helps them maintain blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. However, the type of carbohydrate is particularly important. And even if you don't have diabetes, it's wise to choose complex carbohydrates because they're better at keeping blood sugar levels stable.

In recent years, research has begun to focus on other uses for the GI. It may help guide weight-loss efforts and has potential as a component of dietary intervention for cardiovascular disease. In fact, the GI is being discussed in the mainstream media, as well as in clinical situations, in connection with the treatment and management of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure as well as diabetes. Although additional research is needed, scientific evidence is mounting that a diet of high glycemic-index foods may increase the risk of these and possibly other diseases.

How the Glycemic Index Works

The glycemic index ranks foods according to their immediate effect on blood sugar levels in comparison to other foods. The ranking is done by establishing the effect of 50 grams of available carbohydrate (the total amount of carbohydrate minus fiber) in a control food on blood sugar levels. The control food, originally white bread, was assigned the number 100. Once that was established, researchers tested equal amounts (50 grams of available carbohydrate) of various foods and compared blood sugar response to the control food. Any food that raised blood sugar levels more than white bread had a higher number, while foods that raised blood sugar less than white bread had a lower number.

Today, some researchers have chosen to use glucose as the control food instead of white bread. Glucose, then, is given the value of 100 and all foods are compared to its effect on blood sugar instead. When white bread is used as the control food, the GI rank of glucose is 140, since it raises blood sugar levels more than glucose. For you to use the GI index, though, it doesn't matter which method was used in testing the foods, as the idea is the same. The GI value of a food lets you compare its effect on your blood sugar relative to other foods. That can help you make wiser food choices, including choosing better, healthier carbohydrates.

There are only a few nutrition research groups in the world that have tested the glycemic response and compiled GI values. They use a very strict testing protocol to determine the GI value of each food. Let's say they want to find out the GI value of dried apricot. Researchers use a test food and a control food. In this case, dried apricots would be the test food, and white bread or glucose would be the control food. The subjects (usually 8 to 10 participants) are given enough dried apricots to provide 50 grams of available carbohydrate (approximately 27 apricot halves). Their blood sugar response is then tested and plotted on a graph every 15 minutes during the first hour and every 30 minutes during the second hour. The same procedure is used after they ingest 50 grams of available carbohydrate from glucose or white bread (the control food). The two values are compared, and the data pulled from the graph is calculated using a computer program. Finally, the average GI from all the test subjects for the test food is calculated from the collected data.

In general, low-GI foods have scores below 55. Moderate-GI foods score between 55 and 70, while high-GI foods score above 70. As you can see, the lower the GI, the slower the blood glucose response to that food. Using the GI, you can select foods that elicit a slow, steady rise in blood sugar resulting in stable blood sugar levels that keep energy high and stave off hunger.

Sometimes the glycemic index can be misleading. In the next section, learn more about how to use the glycemic index.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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Using the GI in real-life situations may sound complicated at first. But you just need to get a feel for the groups of foods that have low to moderate scores. Then choose those foods more often. Keep the following in mind:
  1. The GI wasn't designed to reduce the total amount of carbohydrate people consume daily but rather to help individuals select carbohydrate foods that elicit a slower insulin response.

  2. Place greater focus on GI food categories rather than individual foods, selecting foods from the low and moderate categories more often than from the high category.

  3. Keep in mind that foods are normally eaten in combination with other foods. The amount of fat and/or protein, as well as the carbohydrate in a food, and the addition of toppings, spreads, dressings, and sauces can all influence the effect of carbohydrate on blood glucose levels.

  4. A simple way to moderate blood glucose response is by replacing one high-GI food with one low-GI food at each meal or snack. This is also much more realistic than totally eliminating all high-GI foods.

  5. It's perfectly acceptable to include high-GI foods in the diet. However, the higher the GI, the smaller the portion should be.

  6. Eating high-GI foods following a hard workout will help replenish glycogen stores.

  7. The GI is not meant to be used in isolation but rather as one component of an overall healthy eating plan that considers other nutrients (protein, fat, and fiber), portion size, and timing of meals and snacks.
Glycemic Load and the Glycemic Index

While the GI is a useful tool when choosing between carbohydrates, there's another ranking system that may be more practical. The GI system ranks individual foods, which allows you to compare one to another in isolation. Yet we rarely eat only one single food at a time, and that's where the GI system has some limitations. Many factors can affect the rate at which a carbohydrate is digested and raises blood glucose levels. For instance, if you eat protein and fat along with carbohydrate, it is digested more slowly and raises blood sugar levels more gradually. Other factors that can have an impact on the GI of any food are:
  • Degree of ripeness. For example, the more ripe a banana is, the higher its GI. This typically applies to all fruits that continue to ripen once harvested.

  • Acids in foods. When acid is present in food, it slows the rate at which your body digests that particular food. Slower digestion means slower absorption and a more favorable effect on blood sugar.

  • Individual differences in rate of carbohydrate digestion. Test five people and each will respond differently to the same food. Use the GI as a guide, but monitor the effect carbohydrate foods have on you, especially if you have diabetes.

  • Type of flour (if any) in the product. The more refined white flour in a product, the higher the GI; the more whole-grain flour, the lower the GI.

  • Cooking time. The cooking process makes starch molecules swell and also softens food (the longer the cooking time, the softer the food) making it easier (faster) to digest. GI numbers typically increase with cooking time.

  • Other ingredients. If a high-GI food is packaged with foods containing protein or fat (such as prepared fettuccine Alfredo), the carbohydrate will have a lower GI effect than it would alone because the fat and protein slow down its digestion. By the same token, foods such as beans (legumes), which have a naturally low GI, can produce a higher GI when canned with sugar and other ingredients, as in the case of baked beans.

using the glycemic index

Watermelon's GI score can
be misleading.

Another limitation of the GI is that it requires participants to consume 50 grams of available carbohydrate for comparison purposes. For some foods, that's a reasonable amount to eat, but for others, it's not. For example, watermelon has a GI of 72, which puts it into the high-GI category. Knowing that might lead you to avoid eating watermelon, even though it's a healthy food and a great source of phytochemicals such as lycopene. What the GI doesn't tell you is that it takes a little more than 4 1/2 cups of watermelon to provide the 50 grams of available carbohydrate on which watermelon's GI is calculated. That's nine times the amount in a typical 1/2 cup serving.

When you calculate the glycemic load (GL), however, you get a very different picture. The glycemic load is used in conjunction with the GI. It reflects the amount of available carbohydrate in a typical serving size of a particular food, so it is more grounded in the real world of eating. The GL is calculated using a formula that multiplies the amount of available carbohydrate in a typical serving size by the food's GI and then divides the result by 100.

Let's take the watermelon example from above. We know it has a high GI. Let's see what happens when we calculate its glycemic load. A typical serving size of watermelon is 1/2 cup, the amount of available carbohydrate in it is 5.75, and its GI is 72. The GL for this food is calculated like this: 5.753724100. If you calculate correctly, you get 4.14, which is rounded to get its glycemic load rating of 4. Watermelon doesn't seem like a high-GI food anymore, does it? That's what happens when you use the carbohydrate in a reasonable serving size to determine the effect on blood sugar. Using the GL shows that it is possible to include high-GI foods in meal planning (more on this later). Remember, eliminating individual foods from your diet, especially fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans that may have a high GI, means you'll miss out on lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. You can find in-depth information on the glycemic index and search for the GI and GL of individual foods at www.glycemicindex.com.

So far, we've discussed the role carbohydrates play in weight gain. Keep reading to learn about how carbohydrates can affect other areas of your health.

Getting Acquainted with GI and GL Values
The following gives both the GI and GL of some sample foods. The foods are organized by their GI ranking. The GL rankings are as follows:

Low GL = 10, Moderate GL = 11-19, and High GL = 20+
(per 50 g of available carbohydrate)

   GI  GL
LOW GI (< 55)
   
Low-fat yorgurt with artificial sweetener
 14 
Lentils  28
Apple
 36  6
All-Bran cereal
 38
Tomato juice
 38  4
Spaghetti  41  20
Canned baked beans
 48  7
Orange, raw
 48  5
Sourdough rye bread
 48  6
100% stone-ground rye bread
 53  6
Sweet potato
 54  17
     
MODERATE (55 -- 70)
   
Brown rice
 55 16 
Oatmeal cookies
 55  9
Moroccan couscous
 58  23
Peach, canned in heavy syrup   58  9
Cheese pizza
 60  16
Sweet corn
 60  9
Split pea soup   60  16
Raisins  64  28
Grapenuts   67  15
Cranberry juice cocktail   68  24
Whole-wheat bread   69  9
     
HIGH (> 70)
   
Toaster pastry   70 26 
Skittles   70  32
Wonder, enriched white bread   71  10
Watermelon   72  4
Cherrios   74  15
Long-grain white rice, quick cooking   75  25
French fries   76  22
Russet potato, baked without fat   78  78
Jelly beans   80  22
Pretzels   83  19
French baguette   95  15

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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So far, we've been concentrating on how to choose good and better carbohydrates for weight control. But selecting good and better carbs affects many aspects of your health. Choose wisely, and you may avoid the onset of some life-threatening health conditions as well as take control of others you already have.

Carbohydrate's Role in Disease Prevention and Management

Complex carbohydrates are the all-stars of disease prevention and disease management. That's because of their high fiber content as well as the abundance of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients they contain. Here's a look at how eating a diet filled with complex carbohydrates can prevent or improve a variety of health conditions and diseases.

carbohydrates and disease

Carbohydrates can be just as important
to your cholesterol and
heart disease as fat.

Heart disease. The traditional approach to treating or preventing cardiovascular disease (CVD) has long been a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. The connection between fat, especially saturated fat, and heart disease was established years ago. Saturated fat, found in particularly high amounts in red meat and full-fat dairy products, raises LDL cholesterol levels (the "bad" cholesterol). Researchers concluded that if people reduced the overall amount of fat in their diet, the amount of saturated fat would also drop. Since fat has more than twice as many calories as carbohydrate and protein (9 calories per gram for fat compared to 4 calories per gram for carbohydrate or protein), reducing the amount of fat in the diet and increasing the amount of carbohydrate would mean eating fewer calories. Excess body weight is a contributing factor for heart disease, so maintaining a healthy weight works to reduce CVD risk.

Typically, carbohydrate foods are naturally low in fat. When minimally processed, they contain fiber that helps reduce cholesterol levels by removing LDL from the body. Health professionals included carbohydrates in their recommendations for heart-healthy eating. However, people were not always counseled to eat more of the "healthy" carbs and fewer of the "less healthy" carbs and filled up on large portions of fat-free and refined carbohydrates. They may have been taking in less fat but certainly not fewer calories!

To help reduce the risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) currently  recommends a diet rich in fruits; vegetables; legumes (beans); whole, unrefined, complex carbohydrates; low-fat dairy products; fish; lean meats; and poultry. The AHA also recommends reducing the amount of saturated and hydrogenated (trans) fats in the diet. Nutrition counseling and education recommendations from the American Dietetic Association, the AHA, and other organizations focus on the distinction between heart-healthy fats and the importance of "healthy" carbohydrates.

Gastrointestinal disease. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains, are particularly helpful for improving overall gastrointestinal health. These foods are high in fiber, which plays a pivotal role in reducing the incidence of constipation and diverticulosis, a condition in which tiny pouches form inside the colon. Fiber may also reduce the risk of colon, stomach, and gallbladder cancers. But that's not the only benefit of these nutrient-rich foods. Increased intake of intact grains and other fiber-rich, whole, complex carbohydrate foods helps decrease pressure inside the intestinal tract and may help prevent diverticulosis as well as diverticulitis, the painful inflammation of the pouches. Many of these complex carbohydrate foods also pack vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc, magnesium, and a host of B vitamins, as well as antioxidants such as vitamins E and C, selenium, and beta carotene. The phytic acid found in whole grains may help reduce cancer risk by decreasing free radicals. Free radicals, molecules formed as a byproduct of various biochemical processes in your body, can damage cells. Reducing the amount of free radicals can in turn reduce the risk of cancer.

Diabetes. It's still unclear whether diabetes can be prevented by eating complex carbohydrates that have a low-GI ranking. One prevailing theory is that long-term intake of lots of high-GI carbohydrates increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. This is thought to result from either insulin resistance (see below) or by exhausting the pancreas as it works to produce constant, high levels of insulin. There is good evidence, however, that a diet filled with complex carbohydrates can help treat and manage diabetes. We've known for quite some time that people with diabetes don't need to stay away from all carbohydrate. The body processes all forms of carbohydrate the same way, turning them into sugar (glucose). It's the speed with which the carbohydrate is processed and its corresponding effect on blood sugar that is important in diabetes management. Since simple, refined carbohydrates raise blood sugar more dramatically than do complex carbohydrates, people with diabetes should eat low-GI carbohydrates rather than refined, high-GI carbs. Eating low-GI foods throughout the day -- at meals and for snacks -- can go a long way toward controlling blood sugar levels.

Insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition that may make it difficult for some people to process simple carbohydrates, especially large portions of them at one time. Overwhelming or flooding the body with large intakes of carbohydrate forces the body to work extra hard to clear the glucose from the blood. In the case of insulin resistance, the body's tissues are not receptive to the message that insulin is there to unlock the cell and let glucose in to do its job. The result is high levels of glucose circulating in the bloodstream for extended periods of time. This causes the pancreas to work harder to crank out more insulin to shuttle all of the extra glucose into cells. Overworked pancreatic cells may eventually wear out and decrease insulin production, which is an early sign of type 2 (or non-insulin-dependent) diabetes. One way to reduce your chances of developing insulin resistance is by eating plenty of low-GI complex carbohydrates and fewer high-GI, refined, simple carbohydrates.

Obesity. You may not think of obesity as a health condition, but being considerably overweight puts you at risk for a number of different health problems. And people who are overweight typically respond differently to carbohydrates than people who are not. A diet of high-GI, refined carbohydrates may have a much more adverse effect on an obese person's health. For example, in the ongoing Nurses' Health Study, established at Brigham and Women's Hospital in 1976 with funding from the National Institutes of Health, the odds of having a heart attack are increased for overweight women who eat lots of simple (easily digested) carbohydrates. Additionally, volunteers following high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets experienced unhealthy changes in levels of HDL (the good cholesterol), triglycerides (a type of fat), blood sugar, and insulin-the changes being most pronounced in overweight, inactive people. People who are lean and active may be better able to handle a high-carbohydrate intake for a number of reasons. First of all, being overweight makes it more difficult for insulin to do its job helping glucose get into the cells to provide energy. Secondly, people who are more active require more fuel for energy and are particularly efficient at burning carbohydrate, which is the body's preferred source. This allows active people to burn excess carbohydrate for energy instead of storing it as fat. Finally, when you have less fat tissue and more muscle, the body is more efficient at processing and digesting food, including carbohydrates. Whole grains, legumes, fruits, and most vegetables are naturally low in fat and contain healthy carbohydrates and significant amounts of fiber, all of which contribute to an overall healthy eating plan. Human studies have produced mixed results in the low-GI/weight-loss arena, but it certainly isn't harmful to employ the GI when making daily food choices. Some people may experience weight loss as a result.

Your body needs fuel to function. Carbohydrates provide that fuel. In the next section, we'll discuss eating the right carbohydrates for exercise.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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Whether you currently exercise on a regular basis or have been giving some thought to getting started, don't even think about skimping on the carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the fuel your body needs and prefers to power any type of exercise. Regardless of your choice of activity -- aerobic dance, running, strength training, yoga, swimming, bicycling, or walking -- you'll perform at your best by including a variety of carbohydrates in your diet.

The Best Workout Food
Here are some great food choices to keep you energized before and after you exercise:

Pre-workout (low-GI) carbohydrate choices:
Apple
Apricots, dried
Garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
Grapefruit
Lentils
Low-fat, fruited yogurt
Pear
Skim milk, plain or chocolate

Post-workout (high-GI) carbohydrate choices:
Bagel
Raisins
Corn flakes
Watermelon
Graham crackers
White rice, long grain, quick cooking
Potato, baked
Pretzel

People often begin an exercise program when they go on a diet. They know that increased physical activity helps burn calories and tone muscle. What they may not consider is that when you cut calories, whether by extreme reductions in food intake or occasionally skipping meals, energy levels can take a nosedive. If you happen to be following a diet that cuts out or drastically reduces carbohydrate, remember that the conversion of protein to energy is a much slower and more difficult process for the body to complete. Following a high-protein diet may make you feel weak and tired. You'll end up skipping your workout entirely or cutting it short because you're too worn out-neither of which helps you reach your weight-loss goals.

There are also considerations for carbs and timing of meals that depend on when you work out. Whether it's first thing in the morning, during your lunch hour, late afternoon, or after work, make sure you're not sabotaging your efforts by giving yourself either too little or the wrong kind of food.

Early Birds

If you're an early riser who likes to work out while most everyone else is still sleeping, congratulations! This is the best time to work out -- not necessarily in terms of burning more calories but because it's done and out of the way. Not much conflicts with a 5:30 a.m. workout. You're less likely to blow it off than if you save it for after work when long-running meetings, family commitments, or socializing with coworkers can get in the way.

How do you feel before you begin your morning workout? Do you wake up hungry? If that's the case, you definitely need to eat something before you exercise. There's no one perfect food for everyone, so experiment with different food choices. One thing is certain, a small amount of a carbohydrate-rich food will do the trick to get you going and keep you going. Since glycogen (carbohydrate) stores are used while you sleep to keep your heart, brain, and other organs functioning, you need to top off those stores in the morning, particularly if you're hungry first thing.

Some people do just fine exercising in the morning on an empty stomach; in fact, they may feel discomfort if they DO eat. Again, pay attention to your own hunger cues to see how you feel. If you're one of these folks, you may be ravenous after you wrap up your workout. This is an especially good time to bring on the carbohydrates! Immediately following a workout, your muscle cells are most receptive to taking up carbohydrate -- sort of like sponges soaking up all that glucose and storing it for the next bout of exercise.

What if you have no appetite before you exercise and still don't feel hungry when you're finished? Try a liquid form of carbs, such as a fruit smoothie or a sports drink. This will still get the carbohydrate to your muscles within an optimal time frame and help prevent the extreme hunger that often follows a delayed appetite. Sometimes your appetite kicks in when you don't have access to food, and you end up overly hungry.

Lunchtime Warriors

Working out during lunchtime can break up the day while relieving stress. Before you work out, however, think back a few hours: Did you eat breakfast or skip it? If you ate breakfast, how many hours has it been? That light breakfast eaten in the predawn hours is long gone, and you may feel the effects in the form of low energy once you hit the gym. If you've skipped breakfast altogether, well, by now you know the consequences of that!

If a midday workout is your standard routine, make certain you're up to the challenge by eating a mid-morning, carbohydrate-rich snack. Remember that most people need to eat every 3 to 4 hours. Topping off your tank an hour or so before you exercise will get you through your workout with energy to spare. Once you're finished, don't think skipping lunch will aid in your weight-loss efforts. Replenish carbohydrates, fluid, and protein to refill glycogen stores, cool and rehydrate your body, and begin to rebuild muscle. All are equally important for your next workout!

Evening Exercisers

carbohydrates and exercise
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Exercise is a key component of weight
loss, but eating is also vital to an
effective workout. Don't skimp on the
nutrition before you exercise.

If you save your workout until the end of the day, it's particularly important to do a fuel check. It may have been hours since you last ate. Just as you wouldn't expect your car to run without gas, you can't expect your body to perform optimally without fuel. Evening exercisers need to be diligent about their food intake all day long. A large coffee and pastry for breakfast, and a salad and diet soft drink for lunch will barely get you through the day, much less an evening distance run or toug h aerobics class. If you've added strength training to your workout routine and feel frustrated that you're not as strong or defined as you'd like, you may not be eating enough calories, including fat, protein, and carbohydrate. Carbohydrates aren't reserved for runners only!

Consider eating five to six times during the day (meals and snacks), and include protein and carbohydrate each time. This eating strategy helps fill in nutrient gaps, maintain a steady blood sugar level, and won't leave you empty at the end of the day when your workout depends on adequate calories.

For some people, foods with a high glycemic index may produce a quick surge in blood sugar followed by a quick drop to a too-low level. Use those foods in moderation before and during a workout. High-GI foods typically are best saved for replenishing glycogen after a workout.

In our final section, we'll teach how to decipher the various diet and low-carb promises you'll find in the aisles of your grocery store.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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Food manufacturers are always trying to jump on the latest fad diet craze by rolling out a new line of food guaranteed to be "low fat," or "low carb." The only problem is, this tiny aspect of a food's nutritional properties really doesn't tell you the information you need to make a healthy choice.

The Fat-free Fallacy

Nutrition and weight-management experts agree that keeping hunger under control is one of the keys to successful weight loss and maintenance. During the mid-1990s, at the height of the fat-free, processed-foods rage, dieters would often reach for these "diet" foods to help them stay on their weight-loss plan. Unfortunately, since those foods were usually high in sugar and refined flour, they caused unsuspecting dieters to experience roller coaster energy swings and increased hunger. Instead of being a weight-management solution, these products contributed to the weight-control problem. Even now, many dieters don't realize they need to be wary of fat-free products and to eat them only in moderation.

low-cal versus low-carb and fat-free
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
A fat-free donut may still
be high in calories.

What consumers also didn't realize -- or conveniently forgot -- was that "fat free" is not synonymous with "calorie free." Consumers behaved as if the fat-free products had put unlimited quantities of previously forbidden foods, such as cookies and ice cream and chips, back on the dieting menu. They could have their fat-free cake and eat it, too, believing that as long as it was fat free, they would be, too. And they didn't stop at eating just a couple of cookies; they ate the whole box. While patiently waiting for their favorite treat to be restocked on the grocer's shelves, dieters forgot about the one basic weight-loss premise that never changes: Too many calories in and not enough out = weight gain.

If these foods were fat free, why weren't they also calorie free? Why did some of the fat-free varieties pack even more calories than the original version? When manufacturers remove the fat, which adds flavor and mouthfeel to food, they must replace it with something to keep the food tasty. For sweets that replacement is sugar. While it's true that sugar is fat free, it still has lots of calories, so eating a gallon of fat-free ice cream will never help you lose that excess weight.
Carbs for Active People
When it comes to physical activity powered by muscle glycogen stores, there are many variables to consider, such as the size of the individual and intensity of the activity.

However, on average, we store enough carbohydrate for only 2 to 3 hours of physical exertion. As long as you eat consistently throughout the day with an eye toward variety and balance of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) and don't skimp on calories, you'll have plenty of fuel to get you through your daily workout. Unless you're participating in an ultra-endurance distance sporting event, you don't have to worry about running out of fuel completely!

Another reason many people overate fat-free foods is that often, no matter how hard they tried, manufacturers just couldn't match the flavor of the original version. People felt unsatisfied regardless of how much they ate. After polishing off a box of fat-free candies, it was typical for dieters to go searching for "the real thing" in order to feel satisfied. In the end people ate more calories than if they'd had a few of the originals in the first place. Fat-free foods have their place, but they're a weight-loss tool only if used properly. And they're definitely not the answer.

Carb Buyer Beware!

There are some foods now sporting a low-carb label that have always been naturally low in carbohydrate. Natural peanut butter (the kind without added sugar) is a good example. In general, nuts come by their low-carb title without any help from food manufacturers. Cashews have a bit more carbohydrate than other varieties, but when compared to other natural foods, such as honey, the carbohydrate content is minimal.

Many other foods also need no help from manufacturers to earn a low-carb title. These include lettuce; berries; cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower; protein foods such as lean meats, chicken, fish, cheese, and soy products; cantaloupe; honeydew melon; and tomatoes.

If you see a low-carb label on any of the products listed above, don't be fooled into thinking they're somehow more low-carb than they would be without the label. Eaten on their own (meaning not part of combination dishes where carbohydrates from other foods come into play), these are simply low-carb foods.

There are some foods naturally low in carbohydrate that become higher in carbs because of the way they are manufactured. Yogurt is a good example. Plain yogurt has little or no carbohydrate, only 15 grams in 8 ounces, and this is from naturally occurring milk sugar. However, many yogurt products contain added sugar, giving them unnaturally high carb counts. You should also realize that added sugar increases the calorie count as well as the total carbohydrate.

The Scoop on Low-carb Products

The fat-free craze of the 1990s didn't have quite the impact on obesity that was expected. Experts were correct in predicting the same outcome for low-carb and carb-free products.

How did manufacturers make foods low carb? It's all about the substitution of ingredients. The particular type of product dictates which substitute is used. Some substitutes include soy flour, xanthan gum, psyllium husk, and artificial sweeteners.

By using a flour, such as soy flour, that contains more protein or fiber than refined white flour does, manufacturers reduce the total carbohydrate in a product. Sometimes they substitute all the flour in a product, and sometimes they substitute only a portion of it.

Xanthan gum, a natural product, is used to replace gluten (a type of protein found in flour) and acts as a substitute binder in products that don't use flour. Baked goods require gluten for structure (breads require the most; cookies the least), and so low-carb products that contain less flour or no flour need a substitute to prevent them from crumbling or falling apart. For instance, a mixture of finely ground nuts and sweetener can stand in as a low-carb crust, but the final product will be crumbly and won't hold together well. Instead of adding flour, which also adds carbs, manufacturers of low-carb products add a small amount of xanthan gum.

High-fiber psyllium is sometimes added to low-carb foods to increase their fiber content. That helps reduce the amount of "net carbs" (the marketing term manufacturers use) because net carbs are calculated by deducting fiber from the amount of total carb. If a product has more fiber, it contains fewer net carbs and has less effect on blood sugar and weight gain.

The sugar replacers used in low-carb foods, such as the artificial sweetener Splenda or the sugar alcohols mannitol or sorbitol, add sweetness without the carbohydrate and calories from sugar.

All of these substitutions, used either alone or together, do produce a decrease in total carbohydrate. However, how substantial the reduction is varies from product to product. Sometimes the reduction is so small that it has a negligible effect.

Clearly fad diets that say, "Never eat carbs!" or, "Eat nothing but carbs!" have not done their homework. The type of carbs you eat or when you eat them can be vastly more important than the quantity. Now that you understand the effects that carbs have on your body, you can build the diet that is right for you.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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