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What are carbs and why do we need them?

Who doesn’t love a carb? Our bodies crave them for good reason. Carbs are one of the most important sources of energy for our bodies and are a key fuel to power our brain. And they make us feel good!

Carbohydrates are a macronutrient that comes in two forms – starches (e.g. potatoes and grains) and sugars (e.g. sucrose, lactose, and fructose). They are found mainly in plants (fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes) or food made from plants. When eaten, our body breaks them down to single molecule of glucose and released into our bloodstream causing a rise on blood glucose levels (BGLs).

Not all carbs are equal.Feel good carbs

Good carbs (or low GI carbs) are broken down slowly, trickling a steady supply of fuel into your tank. As well as sustained energy, low GI carbs are naturally more filling helping you feel fuller for longer and not overeat.

On the other hand, high GI carbs can cause your blood sugars to soar then come crashing down, leaving you feeling flat and can trigger hunger. It’s like taking a rollercoaster ride. This sudden rise in in BGLs puts pressure on your body to produce more insulin, which over time can lead to Type 2 Diabetes and other health complications.

Aim to spread your intake of carbohydrates evenly throughout the day. The amount of carbs you need to eat at each meal to manage your BGLs will vary from person to person.

There is often a misconception that low GI is low carb. This is not true. Low carb looks at the quantity of carbohydrates in a food whereas low GI looks at the quality of the carbohydrate, and how your body responds to it.

People living with or at risk of diabetes do not need to avoid carbs.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution in nutrition, this is particularly true when it comes to carbohydrate requirements.

Generally speaking, the minimum amount of carbohydrate recommended is 130g per day based on energy and glucose requirements of our central nervous system.

For people living with or at risk of diabetes, this will also depend on your diabetes medication as well as your individual carbohydrate recommendations.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend carbohydrate foods make up 45-65 per cent of your daily energy requirements (roughly 230-310 grams per day), with protein comprising 15 – 25 per cent and fat 20 – 35 per cent.

A low carb diet typically contains around 50 – 70 g of carbs per day. Highly active people should eat more carbohydrates, and those with a sedentary lifestyle should keep consumption to the lower end of the recommended daily intake.

We recommend you consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian to get tailored dietary and food advice particularly on how best to manage your diabetes, blood glucose levels and carb quantities.

Feel Good Carbs

Levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin – which affects our mood, energy levels and appetite rise and fall depending on many things such as the seasons during the year. Think of how good you feel with the sun shining compared to a cold and rainy day. Eating carbs increases serotonin levels, so carb cravings are a way of our body trying to increase serotonin levels and make us feel happy. So don’t cut the carbs just be choosy about swapping to healthy low GI choices. They stimulate the production of serotonin, helping to elevate mood and keeping your energy levels stable.

4 Steps to better blood glucose (the low GI way)

Step 1 Make the swap to low GI foods: the carbs that love you back. Low GI foods are slowly digested and absorbed producing a gentle rise and fall in your blood glucose and insulin levels.

Step 2 Keep your carb portions moderate: for most people, approximately 30-60g of carbs (or 2-4 exchanges) per main meal is a good average to consume at one sitting.

Step 3 Eat more regularly: enjoy meals regularly and space out your carbs during the day. If you use insulin or take medication that stimulates insulin production from the pancreas, having consistent mealtimes helps.

Step 4 Exercise regularly for BGL and weight control: exercising muscles need fuel, preferably glucose from carbs. Moving muscles burns glucose, kilojoules (calories) and fat, and lowers BGLs weight loss reduces the risk of diabetes.

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