What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are sugars, starches and fibers found mainly in vegetables, fruit, grains and legumes. Carbs are one of the basic food groups and the human body’s main source of energy.
Carbs: A dancer’s friends or foes?
Carbohydrates have been garnering a lot of (mostly negative) attention, especially by people seeking to control their weight, such as dancers or gymnasts. Often maligned, some people have gone as far as eliminating them from their diets entirely. Carbs, along with fats and protein, are macronutrients, meaning they are essential for maintaining a healthy body.
Carbs are certainly not foes, but eaten in abundance they can become problematic. The body cannot do without the fuel provided by adequate carbohydrate intake. Did you know fats get broken down and ‘burned’ by the energy absorbed from carbs? Every cell in our bodies needs a certain amount and ratio of carbs, fats and protein for optimal functioning. For a while food combining was all the rage until studies revealed that in order to function at their peak potential, our bodies need a mix of all macronutrients at every meal.
This is especially important for dancers and athletes, since brain function is fueled by carbohydrates. Our brain allows us to dance, think and react at a high level only if it receives enough nutrients, which of course means a sufficient intake of carbohydrates. In this case, intelligent eating is key. But what does that mean? Let’s take a look at a ‘friendly’ hormone capable of turning into a foe at the drop of a hat if we consume the wrong foods.
Insulin: What is it exactly?
Carbohydrate metabolism is closely linked with the hormone insulin. Carbohydrates are broken down by the body into sugars, leading to a rise in blood sugar levels and the secretion of insulin. Insulin prompts cells to absorb blood sugar for energy or storage and regulates the amount of sugar circulating in the bloodstream. As long as insulin levels stay under a specific threshold there is no reason for concern in terms of health.
High insulin levels lead to increased lipid synthesis, forcing fat cells to take in blood glucose, which in turn causes an increase in their volume. Simply put, the higher your insulin levels, the greater your likelihood to store fat. Constantly high insulin levels can make a person prone to type 2 diabetes.
How can I keep my insulin levels low?
Eating carbohydrate-rich foods causes insulin levels to spike. The absorption of carbohydrates leads to a quick release of sugars into the bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to rise. High blood sugar levels in turn lead to increased production of insulin which is necessary to clean up excess sugars.
The excess sugars are absorbed by liver, muscle and fat cells, providing they haven’t already been saturated, in which case the sugars are converted into triglycerides and stored as fat. For all intents and purposes, this means weight gain due to increased fat stores in the body.
But weight gain isn’t the only negative consequence of having excess blood sugars: You will most likely feel weak, tired and sleepy. This is the same lethargic feeling you get after eating a large dinner. Come to think of it, this is not all! OD’ing on carbs sends wrong signals to the brain, causing you to feel hungry!
That’s why the second slice of chocolate cake beckons right after you’ve eaten your first one. More blood sugar spikes, more insulin production, and more cake: Welcome to the vicious cycle of insulin production and carb addiction!
The Vicious Cycle of Insulin
The vicious cycle of insulin can be summed up as follows: That golden, fluffy croissant you just picked up is not only delicious, but also high in carbs. Eating the croissant leads to elevated blood sugar levels which in turn trigger a rapid increase in insulin production. The elevated insulin triggers a hyperglycemic reaction which leads to fatigue, lethargy and, ironically, hunger pangs, making you reach for a second croissant!
Of course you could exert the necessary willpower and say no to that second or third croissant, but we understand this could be too much to ask for under certain circumstances. Therefore, if you prefer eating bland and largely unpalatable food, the proper strategy to avoid getting caught up in the vicious, vicious insulin cycle is not to eliminate carbs entirely, but to limit yourself to carbs that score low on the glycemic index. Low-GI carbs, also called complex carbs, take longer for your body to digest, which translates to a slower increase in blood sugar levels and a stable output of insulin. Eat light meals and don’t forget to chew your food properly to increase your feeling of satiety.
Try eating carbs that feature low on the glycemic index list whenever possible. You won’t experience sudden surges in blood sugar levels and insulin fluctuations, reducing the risk of putting on weight!
Stable insulin levels mean stable energy levels. From a practical point of view this means being able to dance for longer and without experiencing fatigue, weakness and hunger. Don’t say we didn’t warn you if you choose whole wheat or whole grain anything over refined foods: You will bloat like crazy!
There are no magical solutions, just as there is no benefit to completely excluding carbs from your diet. Eliminating carbs and embarking on drastic diets is more often than not a pointless endeavor and can lead to health complications in the long run. Our bodies need a balanced diet in order to gain mental and physical balance and well-being.
A healthy diet favors a healthy mind. As a dancer, steps that seemed impossibly hard to execute just yesterday will come naturally in no time.
Don’t eliminate any foods from your diet and eat healthily! You can have one cheat day per week when you allow yourself to eat all your favorite foods. Your metabolism will continue to stay active, your palate will be grateful and you will be happy.
To make it easier for you to choose the right foods with a low GI index we’ve put together a glycemic index food chart. Look up your food’s GI rating and increase your well-being!
What do you think of carbs? Do you eat them on a regular basis or do you think they can be safely eliminated from your diet? Post your comments below!
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