Why You Should Eat Protein with Your Carbs
There’s a lot of talk about carbohydrates these days with the emergence of the ketogenic diet, and low-carb diet. Carbohydrates provide the energy for your brain, muscles and organs to keep moving, humming along to do their job. However, carbohydrates have also been blamed by some people for contributing to the obesity epidemic, inflammation, and insulin resistance.
With such claims, it’s tempting to cut the cord on carbohydrates, eliminating them from your daily diet. However, aside from carb elimination being unnecessary, it’s also unsustainable for most people. A healthier approach is to become carbohydrate aware, and then make smart choices about which carbohydrates you eat, and how you balance the carbohydrate in your meals with other macronutrients, like protein.
So, Why Do Carbohydrates Get Such a Bad Rap?
There are three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Of those macronutrients, fat and carbohydrates are the ones that are primarily used for energy in the body. And, carbohydrates are the macronutrient most likely to cause a sudden spike in your blood sugar after a meal.
When your blood sugar spikes, your pancreas releases insulin. The insulin allows the sugar in your blood to enter cells in your body so it can then be used as fuel or converted and stored as fat. This is all good, and business as usual. But, when your blood sugar is chronically high, and your insulin is consistently elevated, that’s where you get into trouble.
Over time, if your body is exposed to chronically high insulin, it compensates by becoming less sensitive to insulin. So, insulin starts to become less effective at clearing sugar from your blood, and your blood sugar readings begin to rise. This is what often happens with metabolic syndrome (prediabetes), and type 2 diabetes.
Choosing Your Carbs Carefully
Given what we’ve discussed above, carbs sound a bit scary right? So, how can you eat in a way that reduces your risk of gaining excess weight, and developing insulin insensitivity? The solution is not to run away from all carbohydrates. But, instead, it’s important to be conscious and intentional about the ones you do eat.
First, choose your carbs carefully. You can start by trying to get your carbohydrates from natural, non-processed sources. The most abundant source of these carbohydrates are going to be from fruits and vegetables.
Non-starchy vegetables will be the most blood sugar friendly for your diet, since they are high in fiber, and are metabolized into sugar less readily. Non-starchy vegetables include broccoli, brussel sprouts, and carrots. However, starchy vegetables like potatoes and peas quickly metabolize in your digestive system and can quickly spike your blood sugar. So, it’s a good idea to use those somewhat sparingly, and pair with a protein, which we’ll discuss shortly.
The worst offender that you’ll need to watch out for are processed carbohydrates that come in the form of sweets, deserts, and countless packaged foods. If you start watching your carbohydrate intake more closely, you’ll probably notice that a lot of packaged foods contain carbohydrates. And, the ones they do contain are low quality, like added sugars. So, rather than switching to a low-carbohydrate diet, you might just be able to eliminate processed foods from your diet and gain a lot of the same benefits.
So, next time you get that sweet tooth, reach for a mango or some berries. Many fruits still have a lot of sugar, so moderation is still important since they can also quickly elevate your blood sugar. But, fruit also has a lot more fiber than a soda pop, or candy bar, which helps slow the absorption of the sugar. Plus, since fruit has more fiber, it’s more filling, so you won’t be able to consume as much sugar.
If you want to learn more about how to make better carb choices, check out the glycemic index. As a general rule of thumb, foods lower on the glycemic index will trigger less of blood sugar spike.
Pairing Your Carbs With Protein
Completely eliminating carbs is not a good solution. They provide energy, and fruits and vegetables are valuable sources of vitamins and phytonutrients which also promote good health. And, although you can try to reduce sweet treats, and processed carbs, it’s difficult to eliminate them altogether. So, what can you do?
One strategy is to eat protein with your carbohydrates. We often envision a well-balanced meal to be a plate that includes both a protein (often meat), and a vegetable. But, it’s also important to include protein in your daily snacks, especially when you’re snacking on carbohydrates.
In a study done by the American Diabetes Association, researchers found that you can reduce the blood sugar response to rapidly metabolized sugars when eating the protein and vegetables in your meal first. In the study, participants were fed orange juice and bread, and then given the rest of their meal which consisted of a chicken breast, salad, and steamed broccoli. The participants were then fed the same meal a week later in reverse order, eating the bread and orange juice last.
When participants ate the protein and vegetables first, they had a 29% lower blood sugar 30 minutes after the meal, compared to when they ate the bread and sugar first. Two hours after the meal, their blood sugar was still lower. It should be noted however, that this study only included patients who had type-2-diabetes.
What About Whey Protein?
The results above indicate that it’s a good idea to pair protein with your carbs, but what about protein supplements like whey? Can they also help reduce the blood sugar response of carb rich foods? One study from 2009 suggests that yes, they can.
Like the previous study, this one showed that when whey protein was consumed prior to a high carb meal, the blood sugar response to that meal was reduced. In addition, the study found that whey protein increased the amount of CCK and GLP-1, which are two hormones which help to slow stomach emptying. This causes the carbohydrates to more slowly pass into the small digestion for absorption, which likely explains one of the reasons that blood sugar is attenuated.
Putting it All Together
In summary, not all carbohydrates are bad. In fact, fruits, vegetables, and legumes are all healthy whole food sources of carbohydrates. Typically, it’s the highly processed carbohydrates that come in sweets and packaged foods that are the worst offenders. So, you’ll want to reduce those foods in your diet first.
Then, you can check out the glycemic index to become familiar with foods that have the greatest impact on your blood sugar.
Last of all, when you do consume starchy, more carbohydrate rich foods, it’s a good idea to pair them with protein as well to help reduce the overall effect on your blood sugar. You can even use supplements like whey protein to get this effect. For example, do you like fruit smoothies for breakfast? If so, you can attenuate your blood sugar response to the fresh fruit by also adding whey protein, along with a little yogurt or nut butter. You’ll end up with a tasty, and more nutritionally balanced snack.
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