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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fiber and Complex Carbs

(I know you're tired of hearing this, but remember: I'm not a doctor, so all standard disclaimers apply. Proceed at your own risk!)

Yesterday I said there are three "kinds" of calories: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. I said the calorie per gram breakdown looks like this:
  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
I pointed out that fat grams have more than DOUBLE the calories of protein or carbohydrate grams, that most foods are a mixture of all three, and that part of the key to being able to eat enough food to keep from being hungry is to cut how much of that food is fat. So what's the big deal about fiber? And what the heck are complex carbs?

Simply put, there are two kinds of carbs, simple and complex. Simple carbs break down quickly in your body; lots of candy bars fit this description, as do soft drinks. Complex carbs break down slowly in your body, and include most of those "healthy" things you try to avoid, like beans and whole-grain breads and fruits and vegetables and... you get the picture. Complex carbs generally come from plants, and dietary fiber is a very complex carb that does all kinds of good things for you. I will spare you the lecture; you can get more info here and here.

These fibrous complex carbs do some cool things in your body. For example:
  • When properly teamed up with plant sources of protein, they can provide all the same proteins you get from animal sources. I'm not vegan, but variety is a good thing in your diet. Besides, most plants have less fat than most meats; if you want to cut your fat, you'll end up cutting your meat intake a little. A good vegetarian cookbook can give you a leg up on that.
  • Fiber can help diabetics control their blood sugar, often without medication. Ever heard of the glycemic index? Fiber and complex carbs play a big part in that.
  • But the most important thing related to our discussion is this: Fiber regulates how quickly your body turns food into glucose, the sugary fuel that powers your body.
Simply put, you get wired when your blood sugar levels skyrocket, and you tend to feel hungry when your blood sugar levels suddenly tank. Fiber helps your glucose levels stay more even, so you avoid the extremes. And when you avoid the extremes, you make it easier to eat only what you need.

Now, given that a gram of these complex carbs is the same weight as a gram of fat -- but with half the calories -- it follows that substituting some complex carbs for fats in your diet allows you eat the same amount of food as before, with the fiber helping you avoid spikes in your energy levels, while still cutting calories. Simple math example: My meal has 20 grams of fat in it. I replace 10 of those fat grams with 10 complex carb grams. Do the math: 10 fat grams = 90 calories; 10 carb grams = 40 calories. I chop off 50 calories, but I'm eating the same amount of food!

It comes down to this, folks: If you want to lose weight, you have to cut calories... and for most of us, there are way too many fat calories in our diets. It's not that you can't have hamburgers or fried chicken... but you can't have them everyday. Consider them treats; eat them for special occasions or use them as rewards. I'll come back to this concept, because moderation is a really important part of developing a healthy diet you can live with.

But you should definitely learn more about complex carbs and fiber. You may be surprised to find out just how many healthy foods you already like. You don't have to starve when you try to cut calories... and you don't have to quit eating all the stuff you like.

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