Hero carbs: the 'superfoods' that don't break the bank

While refined and rapidly digested carbs are best left on the shelf, we can't afford to shun good carbs.
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While refined and rapidly digested carbs are best left on the shelf, we can't afford to shun good carbs.

Before you part with $50 for a container of acai powder or $30 for half a kilogram of goji berries, it's worth considering some other traditional "super foods" – the ones you can buy with small change.

Less than $5 buys a kilogram of high-fibre chickpeas which, like other low-cost legumes, are packed with good things. There's lots of fibre (the kind that feeds friendly microbes), there's slowly digested carbs, vitamins and minerals and there's protein – just half a cup of cooked chickpeas, lentils or beans delivers around seven grams of protein.

"Chick peas are a hero food. You can roast them, curry them, use them to extend meat dishes and like other legumes they're linked to longevity and are one of the foundations of the Mediterranean diet," says dietitian Alan Barclay, co-author of  The Good Carb Cookbook, a new book that shows the vast difference between the traditional nutrient-rich grains and the highly refined, milled, puffed, popped and over-baked carbs that occupy so much space on supermarket shelves.  

Green lentils with cherry tomatoes and marinated feta.
GOOD CARBS COOKBOOK/ SMH

Green lentils with cherry tomatoes and marinated feta.

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Barley is another star, he says.  At around $2.50 for 500 grams, it's a good source of minerals including selenium, as well as  beta glucan, a fibre that helps sweep  "bad" LDL cholesterol out of the body,  it adds filling power to soups and stews and makes a  healthier  risotto – unlike traditional risotto based on more quickly digested Arborio rice, barley is very slowly digested.

Crispy cauliflower with buckwheat, olives, capers and pine nuts.
GOOD CARBS COOKBOOK/ SMH

Crispy cauliflower with buckwheat, olives, capers and pine nuts.

If you thought the ancient past was a golden age of low-carb cuisine, archaeology suggests a different story.  Chickpeas have been a pantry staple ever since early farmers first planted them in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, Barclay points out, while the hunter-gatherers who occupied a lakeshore camp in Israel around 23,000 years ago left behind traces of wild barley, oats and wheat along with grinding stones.  Barley was also on the menu for gladiators in ancient Rome.  

So while some modern humans think that ditching carbs is a path to better health, history tells us that humans have thrived on good carbs for thousands of years. As for the argument that our bodies haven't evolved to eat grains, there's evidence that we're hardwired to eat starchy foods – we humans have genes that kick-start the digestion of starches – and we may have had them for up to a million years, says Professor Jennie Brand-Miller of the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre who writes a foreword to the book.  

The carbs that get us into trouble are the "fast" carbs like chips, muffins, doughnuts and most white breads that raise blood sugar rapidly.

"When we're younger our bodies are better are coping with  these more refined  carbohydrates but  eventually a combination of too many of these foods, too many kilos  and the ageing process can take  its toll on the pancreas  increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes," Barclay explains.

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"By the time they reach their 40s many people are overweight and this is when diabetes starts to develop very quietly. If you eat a lot of refined high-GI carbs it puts pressure on the pancreas, the organ that produces insulin to control blood glucose. At the same time, we tend to lose muscle as we get older – and by using glucose for fuel, muscle is important for controlling levels of blood glucose."

So while these refined and rapidly digested carbs are best left on the shelf, we can't afford to shun good carbs, says Barclay.

"The problem with many gluten-free products is that they're made with rice and corn flour which are lower in fibre. The last national nutrition survey   found that our fibre intake had gone down from 25 to 24 g daily – heading below the recommended daily target of 25 to 30 grams," he says.  "It may not seem like much but it should be ringing alarm bells for a country with one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world."

And if you're worried that carbs will make you fat by making your body produce too much insulin, which in turn makes us store fat more efficiently, that's a very simplistic version of the facts, he adds.

"The University of Sydney and Harvard University have created a food insulin index which looks at the effects of all foods, not just carbs, on insulin production. It's found that carbohydrates account for only half the production of insulin – protein foods, especially milk, seafood and meat, also promote production of insulin. Fat, in particular saturated fat, contributes to insulin resistance."  

The Good Carbs Cookbook by Dr Alan Barclay, Kate McGhie & Philippa Sandall is published by Murdoch Books.

 - SMH

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