The question is what we should be eating. Everybody seems to know what we should not eat (sweets, fried food, etc) but there is confusion about what we should eat.
All about carbs
Carbohydrates are responsible for providing our body with the energy it needs for normal day to day functioning. Additionally, they play many other important roles:
- Synthesise and form our DNA and RNA
- Synthesise hormones and fatty acids such as cholesterol
- Generate powerful antioxidants and protect our cells from damage and ageing
- Cleanse the body
- Help hormone and immune functions
- Regularise bowel movement because of their fibre content
Most importantly, carbohydrates help in the functioning of our brain cells and neurons. The body is able to carry out its functioning without carbohydrates but it cannot think without carbs. We have all experienced this. If we are hungry or haven’t eaten for a long time, we get edgy and irritable, and generally lose our sense of reasoning and judgement.
Carbohydrates are found in all plant foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, etc and in milk and milk products. (They are absent in meat and meat products). Carbohydrates are classified as simple and complex, we all know that. Now what we also need to understand is that carbohydrates are also classified by their glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL).
The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates depending on how quickly they lead to an increase in our blood glucose and insulin levels. High GI or ‘fast’ carbs lead to a quick sharp rise in the blood glucose levels and low GI or ‘slow’ carbs lead to a slow, steady rise in blood glucose levels. High GI goods get converted to fat quickly and low GI foods have a much better chance of getting utilised for energy instead of getting stored as fat.
Glycemic load is based on glycemic index and portion size. It is achieved by multiplying glycemic index by the carb content of a particular food and dividing that number by 100. So the glycemic load of a particular meal is the sum of all glycemic loads of all foods consumed during the meal. What this means is that even if you fill up on a lot of low GI food, its effect on your body will be similar to eating a small portion of high GI food.
There is a lot of talk about no carb and low carbs, but is it really advisable to cut down on carbs? Well, no, not if you are Indian. Indian diets have always been high in carbohydrates. If you search the web you will find wealth of information on glycemic index and load. But does all this information help us achieve our goals of adopting a healthier lifestyle and staying fit? Instead I have often seen people getting, what I call, ‘diet diarrhoea’. They get so much of conflicting and confusing information that they can digest and assimilate nothing. In the end everything that they have read is lost or wasted. What stays is a drained out state in mind. And they are still not able to decide if they should eat carbs or cut carbs.
Choosing the right carbs
In fact, in the absence of carbs, fat cannot be utilised for energy. Now all want to burn fat, right? So put that chapati, rice, dosa, idli, poha.
Just be careful to choose slow carbs. Carbs that retain their fibre are low in GI; so if you look at brown rice and white rice the main difference is in the fibre content. Brown rice contains all the fibre and that’s why it has higher nutrient content and better fat loss properties. White rice on the other hand has lost all its fibre and nutrients thanks to the processing. So, it’s high on GI and low on fat burning properties. Other low GI foods are; jowar, barley, bajra, nachni, legumes, dals, wholewheat. All sweets, biscuits, pizzas, processed juices, sherbets, jams and jellies are high on GI because they have no fibre. It takes no time for our body to convert the sugar that comes from these foods to eat. Stick to low GI food as a general rule. Your body can take high GI food only after exercise, when your body needs instant sugar.
Now how do you use the information you have on glycemic load? If you eat a lot of brown rice, even if it is low on GI, the GL of your meal will go up because you will end up consuming lots of carbohydrates at one time. This will again convert food to fat because there will be too much sugar load at one particular time. So use your common sense. Just because it’s good for you don’t eat all you want; always keep in touch with your stomach and make sure you don’t cross the overeating threshold.
The Atkins attitude and the South bitch
In the west, carbs are often eaten stripped of fire: processed flour in used in their bread, cakes, pasta, pizza, etc. The western diet usually lacks that great Indian concept of dal-sabzi, as part of our every meal. Vegetables come, if at all, mostly in form of salads camouflaged with croutons and fattening dressings. So the slow or good carb content in their diet as well as fibre is negligible. Even cereals are mostly processed with added sugar. Atkins and South Beach diets, which promoted low carb, were such a huge hit because following them meant going off bagels, pizzas, pastas, muffins, etc – foods which don’t provide the body with any nutrients. The sad part is that people lost weight but also their health. These diets so severely restricted carbs that it interfered with dieters’ day to day functioning and thinking. In fact the ‘Atkins attitude’ is a well documented phenomenon. Low carbs diet lead to depletion of serotonin, an neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for feeling of well being, happiness, and satisfaction. Atkins attitude makes your moods go south. South beach diet also rhymes with south ‘bitch’. (which is what happens to women who are on it). So irritability, restlessness, depression, anxiety are common especially if you are a woman, because you have hormones which can wreak havoc when set off balance by a low carb diet. Worst of all, you go through the whole circus but the weight comes right back and that too, double of what you lost. All that you lose at the end of this big diet drama is your confidence and self worth.
To overcome the Atkins attitude, nutritionists recommend complex or slow carbs, very much prevalent in the Indian diet. (Mind you, Indians abroad totally eat the Indian way. Food and its wonderful associations help create the Pind in Calgary, Surat in New Jersey, Ahmedabad in Queens, and Cochin in Oman). But all the google rains and rajas of mera bharat mahan (women or men who depend on google for all information and entertainment they need in life, one google window always open, searching desperately for something they must know) blindly copied the low carb diet fad of the west, but instead of looking like a Hollywood star they ended up looking like deflated pizzas. Use your common sense, don’t get off carbs. Especially with the meals you eat at home, where you use chakki atta and eat hot breakfast daily. Carbs help you burn fat, keep your bowels clean, reduce bloating and aids metabolism (because they also provide the all important vitamin B responsible for converting food to energy.)
In India, or for Indians anywhere, avoiding carbs need not be high on the agenda. Look at Indian foods: poha, upma, parathas, idlis, rice, chapati, etc. Most of our carbohydrates aren’t processed, and they retain their fibre, vitamin B and minerals. Also, if you look at our cooking style, everything gets a tadka or seasoning of 1 to 2 teaspoons of oil with some seeds like mustard, jeera, etc. The addition of a fat like oil or ghee in the tadka lowers the GI. The primary foods that we use in India, our cooking methods or our food combinations all work at reducing glycemic index and increasing fibre content of food.
Now if we are also eating the Indian way, that is sitting on a mat, on the floor, using the crosslegged, saying our prayers (India is multicultural and religious, and all religions recommended prayer before eating) where we offer our food to God and consume the rest as prasad of God’s blessing, then we will remain super duper lean and fit.
So eat high fibre carbohydrates as much as possible and cut the biscuits, cakes, pastries, pizzas and anything that’s low fibre. At the end of this section I have a list of carbs that you shouldn’t worry about, and a list of carbs that you should ideally eliminate or reduce from your diet.
I can’t emphasise enough on the importance of ‘Eat local, think global’. Punjabis in the great land of Punjab only have aloo parathas for breakfast and not dinner unlike the people of Mumbai, Delhi, or Bengaluru (where parathas are blamed for putting on weight). Also, south Indians who eat rice eat the unpolished variety which retains most of the bran or fibre and B vitamins. Once in the cities, its white polished rice, so white it can put your rock to shame.
Indians are prone to diabetes. This is consequence of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is caused by consuming too many unhealthy or fast carbs, in addition to stress, obesity and inactivity. This condition can be managed very easily by reducing the glycemic load at one time; ie eating small portions many times a day and consuming slow or low GI carbs.
The pancreas plays an important role in food digestion, secreting enzymes that break down fat, starch and proteins in the small intestine. The beta cells of the pancreas produce Insulin and alpha produce glucagon. When there is a rice in blood sugar level the beta cells secrete insulin, which simulates cells in the body to grab glucose, leading to a fall in glucose levels. It also instructs the liver to store glucose as glycogen. When glucose levels fall below a set point or optimal level, the alpha cells secrete glucagons, which instruct the liver to convert glycogen back to glucose. These two pancreatic hormones are responsible for maintaining healthy blood glucose levels. Consumption of high GI or processed carbs leads to a sharp increase in blood glucose levels in a short time period, followed by a huge dip in its levels; which overburdens these two sensitive hormones and leads to obesity, especially around the stomach. Over a period of time, these hormones lose their sensitivity to blood glucose levels; this is called insulin insensitivity.
All about proteins
The word protein comes from the Greek word ‘proteios’ which means primary. It has many roles to play in our body without which normal functioning can be impaired. Some of these functions are:
- Making antibodies, which are our primary defence system against infections.
- Movement and muscle contraction, which we get from contractile proteins.
- Catalysing metabolic and biochemical reactions through enzymes. Enzymes take part in all chemical reactions in the body. Example: enzymes helps the digestive system in breaking down food.
- Picking up signals from the body and sending them to a cell that needs it; hormonal proteins work as messenger proteins.
- Making up cells and tissues; structural proteins such as keratin, collagen and elastin do this important job for us, creating connective tissue, tendons, ligaments.
- Help transport nutrients from one part of the body to another; the haemoglobin does this.
The primary function of protein is to build and repair your body. In fact amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are what make up all the different parts of the body. There are about 20 odd amino acids, which can be compared to alphabets. Different amino acids come together and make specific proteins that go into creating hair, nerves, or the matrix of the bone, cartilage, hair, nerves, or the matrix of the bone, cartilage, hormones, enzymes, etc.