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Carbohydrates and the Asian Indian Diet

December 2006
Carbohydrates and the Asian Indian Diet

With all the hype in the media about low carbohydrate diets, and carbohydrates being the culprit when it comes to weight gain, one can be confused about which carbohydrates to eat, or whether or not to eat them at all! Some might wonder, "What is a carbohydrate, and how does it play a role in my Indian diet?"

Carbohydrates, along with fats and proteins, are an essential part of the diet. The simplest carb, glucose, is the only fuel normally used by the brain! We can eat 40-60% of our daily calories as carbohydrates, as long as they are good carbs.

The Good and the Bad

Carbohydrates can be divided into two groups: simple and complex. Simple carbs are rapidly digested and provide the body with quick energy. They are found in some nutritious foods such as milk and fruit that provide the body with vitamins and minerals. However, they are more often found in our diet in processed foods such as cakes, cookies, soft drinks, desserts, and candy, which usually have little nutritional value (vitamins, minerals, or fiber) but more unhealthy ingredients (saturated fats, trans fats, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, etc.). Too much of these non-nutritious "empty" calories can cause highs and lows of energy, cravings, can lessen our appetite for nutritious foods, and pack on the pounds!

Furthermore, simple carbs can adversely affect glucose metabolism. As any carb is broken down, sugars are absorbed by the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises, insulin is produced to transport these sugars to the cells to be used as energy. When blood sugars are raised too quickly, as when simple carbs are consumed, insulin surges are greater, and one feels hungry more quickly. Moreover, recent research shows that a diet that cause blood sugars to spike, elevating rapidly and then dropping, may cause health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates, which include whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, beans, sweet potatoes and other vegetables, take longer for the body to digest, thus providing a steady stream of energy throughout the day. Insulin levels are steady, and one stays satiated much longer. These foods also provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and, in unprocessed forms, most are low in fat and calories. Complex carbs are clearly the better choice.

Registered Dietician Purvi Shah recommends more green vegetables (low glycemic index—less spiking) and fewer white potatoes (higher glycemic index—more spiking). She suggests that we eat more green vegetables at night, avoid overcooking vegetables, and increase items such as yogurt, milk, lassi, tofu, and beans to raise non-meat protein intake.

How Much Carbohydrate?

If eaten in excess, carbohydrates are converted to fat, storing energy in subcutaneous tissues or around organs such as the liver, stomach, and heart. The typical vegetarian Asian Indian diet is very high in carbohydrates. Roti, rice, raita, vegetables—all are carbs. Even lentils and daals, good protein choices, have a higher content of carbs than protein! This high carb diet coupled with a sedentary lifestyle is a health hazard for Asian Indians, who are predisposed to obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Big Dinners? Late Dinners?

The smart choice is to consume more of our calories during the day and less at night, but most of us do the opposite. We eat little or nothing for breakfast, a light lunch, and a big dinner. Try eating more for breakfast and lunch and less for dinner, and you will feel better and more energetic! Unless you are planning to go dancing for a few hours after dinner, a high carb meal is not necessary at night. In the day, however, the carbs can be used for energy and are less likely to be stored as body fat. Partyers beware: late night dinners should be avoided!

Importance of Whole Grains

Foods high in fiber not only help with regularity and internal cleansing, but also help us feel satisfied and so help with weight loss, and help ward off diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Since vegetables and whole grains are high in fiber, we should emphasize both in our diets. Whole grains should be used for breads, cereals, and pasta. Items such as rotis, parathas, etc. can be made with whole wheat flour: King Arthur brand is an excellent choice, readily available at local American groceries. Brown rice is a whole grain that is much higher in nutrients than white rice and so should be substituted for white rice.

More about Rice

Ms. Shah agrees that daal is an excellent choice of protein but advises against eating and rice every night—try cutting it down to every other night. Carbohydrate choices at night should be limited to just roti and vegetables, or rice and daal, instead of all four. When away from home and all four must be consumed, take smaller portions.

Keeping within Limits

Packaged foods also should be checked for portion or serving size: a muffin, for example, may have a high amount of fat and calories and be more than one recommended serving. Simple carbs such as mithais and other desserts should be limited, both in amount and in frequency of consumption.

Make a concentrated effort for two weeks and see a positive change in your eating habits! Be choosy: eat more complex carbs, limit simple carbs, use portion control, be creative, and above all, give up that sedentary lifestyle, and exercise!

--Aarti Patel

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