Eat Health Part II Carbohydrates: Energy Powerhouse Foods


Carbohydrates are necessary foods in any diet.  That is why you've never heard of a NO carb diet.  No, you might well eat lower carb foods but you will eat some form of carbohydrate.  When it comes to carbohydrates it's what you eat and when that is key to sound nutrition. 

Carbohydrates produce energy.  The body does this by converting carbohydrates food into one of two forms: starch or sugars.  Starch is produced when you eat grains, cereal, pasta, rice, bread and some vegetables such as potatoes and winter squash.   Sugars are produced from the natural sugar content of the foods you eat: most leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, beets, fruits and dairy and from those items which contain additional sugars such as baked goods or soda.  Even meat products have a low carbohydrate count.  Nearly all the food we eat does.

 Many of the carbohydrate rich food items also contain something else that is of major importance in a healthy diet: fiber.  Fiber can be found in raw fruits and vegetables and whole grains and to a lower extent in canned or cooked fruits and vegetables.   Fiber not only helps make us feel full when we eat, it also promote healthy intestines and flushes out unnecessary fats.  It soothes systemic inflammation, balances levels of healthy bacteria  to aid in digestion, removes toxins and excess estrogen to thin bile from the liver and will slow the absorption of glucose, controlling blood sugar spikes and decreasing the risk of diabetes.

Recommended daily allowances  of carbohydrates in a healthy eating plan varies.  It depends upon many factors: activity level, how often you eat, medications, blood sugar control and cholesterol levels.   Most people require between 30-75 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15 -30 grams per snacks.   There are no rock hard guidelines.  It is a balance each individual must find for himself.  A good place to start is with 45-60 grams per meal and 15 grams per two snacks daily.  Some people find it easier to count carb choices.  The right number of choices can be between 2 and 5 servings of carbs per meal and 1-2 servings per snack.    Either method works just fine. The key is to find the right number of carbohydrates for you.  The right number of carbohydrates will result in better blood sugar balance and neither weight gain nor loss.  Obviously if you must gain or lose weight then you'd adjust your caloric intake overall and increase or decrease carbohydrates and proteins.

Briefly the recommended foods required for proper carbohydrate intake are: 2-3 servings of fruits per day and  3-6 servings of vegetables daily. 

It is recommended that you choose whole fruits and not juices which are higher in sugar and lack fiber.  A nutritional label will provide you with the number of carbs per serving and the serving size and there are standardized guidelines for those foods which bear no nutritional labels.   If you look online you can find many ways to determine serving size.  Most fruits have about 15 carbs per serving and serving size is usually half a whole fruit.  Bananas increase in carbohydrate content as they ripen, so one that is ripe but not spotted and has some crispness to the peel has fewer carbs than a banana that has a softer skin and is fully flecked. 

Typically a serving of a vegetable is 1/2 cup for starchy foods such as potatoes or winter squashes ( and the same for pastas and rice and other grains, by the way) and 1 cup for non-starchy ones such as lettuce and greens, green beans, broccoli, cabbage and such.  A handy guide may be found  by reading food exchange lists such as this one.  All starchy foods are not created equal and don't contain the same portion of carbohydrates.  This is because some convert to starch more quickly (like white potatoes and rice and pasta) and some have a lower glycemic index or break down more slowly such as winter squash and brown rice or whole grain pastas.  Even within the potato family there can be quite a difference.  Russets are higher in carbohydrates and convert to starch more quickly than waxy potatoes like Yukon Gold or Red skinned potatoes and sweet potatoes are an excellent choice due to their high fiber content.

Do remember this:  in the nutritional label there is a portion that tells you the grams of fiber in each serving.  In order to get a true carbohydrate count, you should subtract the number of fiber grams from the total number of carbohydrate grams.  That number is the true carbohydrate value of the food you are eating.   Raw fruits and vegetables have more fiber content than cooked ones.  This is why we are urged to eat salads and fresh fruits!  It does not mean we must choose only raw fruits and vegetables however but it is a help with the recommended fiber requirements for a healthy diet to eat some raw fruits and vegetables (and nuts!) daily. 

Finally if you are a diabetic, finding that balance of carbs is so important for you.  Keep trying.  I followed a diet plan but was also given insulin while in the hospital.  The result was that I had terrific blood sugar control but when I came home I no longer had insulin (not a bad thing!) and I struggled a little and until our own Dorie (Gramma D) shared the idea of determining my carb needs per meal.  I soon found that I require a heavier carbohydrate start to my day (with a balance of protein and fat), and decreased carbs as the day goes on.  I have very good control most days now thanks to that bit of advice. 

The last portion of this post on carbohydrates must include desserts.  Desserts are often high in calories, fat and added sugars and contain little fiber.  It is the rare person though who will never eat dessert.  Here are a few guidelines for having that 'something sweet' and staying within healthy recommendations.  I tell you honestly that if you are eating the recommended daily allowance of fruits your desire for sweet desserts will decrease considerably.  In fact, you might well choose a fruit as the sweet finish to your meal.  This is grand! 

You can also seek out good substitutes.  Consider ways to make fruits count as dessert.  A cup of sliced strawberries with a scoop of whipped topping (just 1 tablespoon) is very satisfying, as is a warm baked apple stuffed with raisins and cinnamon or a poached pear with a swirl of chocolate syrup.  I love a half cup of warmed all natural no sugar applesauce with a single graham cracker in winter. 

One square of dark chocolate is usually less than 5 grams of carb and will satisfy far more quickly than milk chocolate and in less quantity. 

However, there are times when nothing will do half so well as a scoop of ice cream or a slice of pie or cake.  My diabetic education counselor urged me to go ahead and have it, as did my doctor.  If you happen to be diabetic or pre-diabetic, sugars are not out entirely.  Those recommendations were changed in 1994 by the American Diabetes Association.  My counselor suggested eating a small portion of the desired dessert and to go for the regular full fat dessert rather than eating sugar free or fat free options.  Her reasoning was that often sugar alcohols can cause a wide and high swing of blood sugar.  Fat free options often have higher sugar than regular items because there is a loss of flavor when fat is removed.   Plan the extra carbohydrate levels into your routine daily allowance.  If a food is highly desired but also has a very high sugar count, eat a very small portion.  Think of having half a slice of pie instead of 1/8th as we'd normally eat, or 1 cookie instead of 2.  A mini cupcake tastes every bit as good as a big one.   I find that a fun size or bite sized candy bar is more than satisfactory when I have a hard craving and nothing but a candy bar will satisfy. 

And remember this last little bit: If you tend towards hypoglycemia or your blood sugars suddenly fall below recommended lows a bit of sugar can go a long way towards restoring normal levels.  I keep life savers candies in my purse for just that purpose.  1/2 cup fruit juice, or a fun size candy bar are all good options for quick restoration.  Wait 15 minutes, check your blood sugar levels again and then have a 15 gm carb snack with a little protein (peanut butter crackers comes to mind) to provide the needed stabilization.  Try to eat your regular meal within an hour or hour and a half after that. 

While I have added in diabetic helps here, remember that carbohydrates are needed foods for everyone who wants to eat healthily to restore or maintain good health. 


Anonymous said...

The very best information on nutrition and especially diabetic information i have read. If only every Dr would give this information to their diabetic patients hiw much less scary and manageable it would be. Right on with the diabetic counseling i received about 16 years ago and do my best to live by. THANK YOU. I Urge your readers to keep a copy and pass it on. So love reading your writings and know it isn't going to be the political garbage that seems to be so prevelant. Ready to give up Facebook until after the election! Gramma D

Karla Neese said...

This is such an information gold-mind of a series. Thank you for sharing what you have learned with us Terri!

We have fallen back into very unhealthy eating habits and though neither of us have diabetes, or pre-diabetes, we are both unhealthier, and overweight even more than before. It's discouraging and yet we know it's our decisions that make a difference.

Sometimes it can be overwhelming to delve into all of the nutritional information out there. You have really helped tremendously to point out basics.

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