The third component of my POWER Plate is W for Whole Grains & Starchy Vegetables aka carbohydrate-rich foods.
Controlling your carb intake is key to staying energised and focussed throughout the day. It's also a critical factor when it comes to weight loss, stable mood, combatting fatigue and avoiding the mid-afternoon slump!
So let's take a closer look at the carbohydrates that will help you stay in peak performance all day long...
Why do we need carbohydrate?
The main function of carbohydrates is to provide energy to the body.
You’ll see that whole grains and starchy vegetables share the same space on the plate and together should constitute around a quarter of your meal as they can drain you if eaten in excess. However, provided they are consumed in the right amounts, with other POWER components, they provide a good source of energy.
Sources of carbs (maybe not quite what you think)
In my talks / webinars I always ask participants to name foods that contain carbs and generally the responses are limited to pasta, bread, rice and potatoes. But – and the clue is in potatoes – carbs are present in all fruit and all vegetables too, especially those that grow below the ground.
Basically, any food that gets broken down into sugar during digestion contains carbohydrate. The key is which ones will give us the best form of fuel and as you'll see, all carbs are not equal.
The whole grain and nothing but the grain...
There are refined grains and there are whole grains, and it won't surprise you that the whole grain is far more beneficial for your health and energy than its refined counterpart.
What difference does it make? It's all about how they affect your blood sugar. If you eat a refined flour product such as white bread or a muffin, it's going to get broken down into sugar at breakneck speed as you digest it, giving you a short burst of energy followed soon after by a crash. With your blood sugar low, you now start to feel hungry, possibly moody and tired, and unable to concentrate. So what do you do next? You reach for your next sugar/caffeine fix to get your blood sugar up again and off you go, riding up and down this blood sugar rollercoaster all day long - with fluctuating energy levels, strong cravings and uncontrolled snacking. Not great for a productive day at work.
So to enjoy a smoother ride and slower release of energy, your fuel of choice should come from complex, unrefined carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread and brown rice. Due to their fibre content, these whole grains take longer to digest and so release their energy slowly, keeping you fuller for longer and leading to more stable energy levels.
Whole grain sources
Healthy whole grains include wholegrain bread and cereals, rye bread, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, brown basmati rice, rolled jumbo (porridge) oats, spelt, quinoa, millet, soba (buckwheat) noodles.
Best breads: wholegrain, stoneground or wholemeal bread, wholemeal wraps and pitta bread, rye bread, spelt bread, sourdough.
Best breakfast cereals are oat-based made from rolled jumbo oats, e.g. muesli, low sugar granola and of course porridge - but not the one you zap in the microwave for 5 seconds which is more akin to sugary sawdust - you know the one I mean!
But avoid or limit these energy-sapping grains: white bread, panini, baguettes, bagels, granary, multigrain - often white bread in disguise with a few seeds and grains thrown in!
Starchy veg sources
These are generally the vegetables that grown beneath the ground, such as carrots, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, beetroot as well as sweetcorn and squashes which are all high in starch.
How much carbohydrate do we need to stay energised?
Despite their fibre and nutrients, even the ‘good carbs’ should not make up more than a quarter of your meal as, in excess, they can still make you tired.
Whole grain portions
The key is to keep your blood sugar balanced so that the carbohydrate in question doesn't cause it to rise too high and subsequently crash. So to avoid the slump, avoid the refined carbs that will destabilise your blood sugar and aim for these whole grain portions:
1 slice of bread
40g brown rice
A large bowl of porridge oats (60g)
2 handfuls of quinoa
1 handful of couscous
What about the starchy vegetables?
Starchy vegetables can also impact your blood sugar, and therefore energy levels, in different ways. Some, like butternut squash will release their energy slowly while a potato will likely cause a blood sugar spike, followed by the crash. Again, it's all about quantity, and these are the amounts of starchy veg recommended per meal to keep you alert and focused:
3 new potatoes or half a jacket potato
½ large sweet potato
1 large carrot
Half a corn on cob
Large serving spoon of butternut squash
1½ tablespoons broad beans
1 medium beetroot
So if your lunch consists of a giant jacket potato with some sweetcorn and grated carrot and maybe a slice of bread on the side, it’s hardly surprising you're feeling tired!
Another bonus to controlling your carb portions will not only benefit your energy levels, but your waistline too as there won't be any excess carbs/sugar to get stored as fat. So it’s a win-win situation!
So enjoy your slow-release carbohydrates in moderate amounts and remember that these foods are just one component on the POWER plate - even if you're eating an apple for a snack, have a handful of nuts with it to sustain your energy levels.