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Carbohydrates should make up just over one third of your daily diet.
They are grouped into either simple carbohydrates, which are sugars - processed white bread, cakes, cakes and biscuits - and are broken down quickly in the body, or complex carbohydrates, which are starches - cereals, oats, pulses, wholegrains, most fruits and vegetables - and take more time to break down.
Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly, causing blood sugar levels to spike and then dip. When blood sugar levels drop so do your energy levels.
Starchy, complex carbs release glucose into your blood gradually, providing you with a steady stream of energy and nutrients.
The speed your body metabolises carbohydrates can be measured according to the Glycaemic Index (GI) - a grading system that assesses whether a food raises your blood sugar levels quickly, moderately or slowly.
While all carbs are broken down into glucose, the type and amount will affect your blood sugar levels as they are digested and absorbed at different rates.
The GI rating system runs from 0 to 100, and the slowly absorbed ones (low GI) have a rating of 55 or under.
According to the British Dietetic Association (BDA) healthy low GI choices include:
If you skip breakfast - and the BDA estimates around a third of us do - you are likely to feel lethargic quickly.
Tucking into a balanced, low GI breakfast, containing complex carbs with a little protein and fat, should set your body up with all the nutrients it needs for necessary energy.
The BDA recommend that your breakfast should provide 20 to 25 per cent of your daily nutrients and suggests:
If you are pushed for time, try preparing your breakfast the night before by soaking oats in low fat milk, adding fresh or dried fruit and a pinch of cinnamon, and putting it in the fridge for morning.
Eating unrefined carbs will help increase your energy and help keep your weight down. They have also been shown to prevent, or reverse, insulin resistance linked to type 2 diabetes (where blood sugar levels become too high).
This is because a rise in blood sugar triggers the pancreas to release the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin. Insulin resistance develops when blood glucose levels are consistently high over a prolonged period. There is mounting evidence that insulin resistance can be reversed by eating less sugary and processed foods and more unrefined complex carbohydrates.
To improve the energising effects of low GI carbs further, eat them with protein (eggs with toast; wholemeal bread with peanut butter; oatcakes with hummus) and a little fat.
The body takes longer to process proteins than other foods so this effectively slows down the absorption of the carbohydrate.
The charity Diabetes UK says the amount of carbs you eat can have a more pronounced effect on blood sugar levels than its GI value, and recommends keeping portion sizes small. Tucking into a huge lunch tends to result in that classic post-meal slump as the more you eat, the harder your digestive system needs to work.
As helpful as the GI index is, it doesn't always give you the full nutritional picture. For instance, chocolate is low GI (its fat content slows the absorption of the carbohydrate) but it doesn't offer a huge amount nutritionally. Yet watermelon, is high on the index (72) but contains important nutrients like vitamin C, the antioxidant lycopene, plus magnesium and potassium. It is also low calorie and hydrating.
Almost all fruit and vegetables are complex carbohydrates and will provide you with essential energising vitamins, so aim to include as wide a variety as possible for optimum health and energy. Low GI vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce. High GI ones are starchy root vegetables such as parsnips and potatoes - best eaten with their fibrous skins on, as they are broken down more slowly and retain more nutrients; and low GI fruits like grapefruit and cherries and plums.
Jo Waters is a health writer who has contributed to a variety of newspapers and magazines including the Daily Mail, Mirror, Nurture Magazine and the Express.
See more of Jo Waters' work.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.