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Well Being Articles: Nutrition


The Difference between Carbohydrates and Starches

By Lela Rabie

Some time ago at a client meeting, I was asked the question,'what is the difference between a carbohydrate and a starch?', well, to my own surprise and embarrassment, I couldn't answer! So here is the low-down on carbs and starches, I hope you find it as interesting as I do! All the information for this article was taken from one of my all-time favourite nutrition books: 'Staying Healthy with Nutrition' by Elson Haas MD. (ISBN:0-89087-481-6, Celestial Arts Publishing, Berkeley, California, 94707). Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are my own.

What is a carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and are the product of photosynthesis in plants. As they contain carbon and come from living sources they are classified as organic molecules.

Types of carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates are classified according to their structure and as such there are three main classifications: sugars, starches (there is the answer!) and fibre. Sugars are further divided into monosaccharides such as glucose, fructose and galactose and disaccharides such as lactose, sucrose and maltose. Starches are also known as polysaccharides or complex carbohydrates (because they are made up of long chains of glucose molecules, unlike mono- or disaccharides). Fibre is mainly found as indigestible cellulose in the coverings of cereals grains or the skins of fruits and vegetables.

So how is starch different to carbohydrates?

Well, as we can see above, starch is one 'type' of carbohydrate, thus a 'no-starch' diet will mean that you are cutting out one form of carbohydrate but not all of them. A 'no-carbohydrate' diet, if followed correctly(and technically) would mean that you are cutting out all forms of carbohydrates, which includes sugars and fibre. We all know that some sugar is needed in a healthy diet and fibre is a rather important part of good digestion so this leads me to say that probably a 'no-starch' or 'low-starch' diet is a slightly better option than a 'no-carbohydrate' or 'low-carbohydrate' diet. However, please note that it is in no way my recommendation that anyone goes on either of these diets. A healthy diet (even one for weight loss in particular) should include all the food groups, rather focus on eating the right kind of carbohydrates in healthy amounts than leaving them out all together.

So what are healthy carbohydrates?

Well, it depends on your individual needs. A sportsperson or athlete may require different kinds of carbohydrates than someone who is more sedentary in their daily life. However as a general rule of thumb, it is better to look at the complex carbohydrates (starches) such as whole grains(rice, corn), potatoes and carrots for sustained energy and some simple sugars combined with fibre in the form of fruits. Honey is also simple sugar which is a good source of 'quick-release' energy. Refined carbohydrates such as cakes and pastries are best avoided, not only do these products contain high levels of unhealthy fats, the carbohydrates they contain can elevate glucose levels in the blood and tissue, thus a diet rich in these foods could lead to blood-sugar imbalance and other sugar-related health problems. As always, moderation is key!

A final note on weight loss:

If you are trying to lose weight, try to investigate how you can change your entire diet to contain foods which are conducive to health and well-being rather than 'cutting out' or avoiding one type of food only. By removing a particular food or food group from your diet, you stand the chance of developing nutrient deficiencies later on and you are also not looking at why you are carrying excess weight and how you can improve your lifestyle and choices. Common sense goes a long way and in addition educating yourself about healthier foods is a good way of taking the first step on your weight-loss journey.

I hope this has provided some answers! As always, feel welcome to comment or drop me an email!

Balancing Blood Sugar through Diet

An edited version of this article written by Lela was published in issue 45 of The South African Journal of Natural Medicine, available in stores nationwide on a monthly basis or on:

Balancing blood sugar through diet.

When I was a child and was having a tantrum about something, the first thing my mother would ask was, ‘Have you eaten?’. At the time I couldn’t understand why this was important and as a teenager I was convinced she was encouraging an unhealthy emotional relationship with food but now, as so often happens in hindsight, it seems that my mother, was right.
I have since discovered that I have a family tendency to hypoglycaemia, also known as low blood sugar and thus I have to be very conscious of keeping my blood sugar levels stable as this can often be a precursor to adult onset diabetes. As a result I have tried and tested various ways of eating until I found what works for me. Even if you are not hypoglycaemic, balancing your blood sugar through diet is a great way to keep your mood and energy levels up and your weight down.

How does it work?
In order to understand how to keep your blood sugar on an even keel, you first need to understand how your body keeps it balanced.
Blood sugar is mainly controlled by two hormones, glucagon and insulin. Glucagon increases the breakdown of fat into fatty acids in adipose tissue which causes fatty acids to be released into the blood and so providing energy for the cells, it also stimulates glucose release into the blood. All of this has the effect of helping blood sugar rise to a normal level.
Insulin on the other hand, stimulates most of the body cells to take up more glucose from the blood. It also increases the rate at which glucose is used as an energy source. This has the effect of helping blood sugar to drop to a normal level.
Thus, how it works is as follows: When you eat a meal which for example contains high levels of carbohydrates which causes the blood sugar levels to rise, a signal gets sent to the beta cells of the pancreatic islets, part of the pancreas. This signal tells them to secrete the hormone insulin so that the body cells can take up excess glucose from the blood, use glucose faster as an energy source and that glucose from the liver and skeletal muscles is to be used to form glycogen and fat is to be made from the glucose in fat tissue and liver cells. All of these effects then cause a drop in the blood sugar level. After a few hours the blood sugar level will drop below normal or set point level when the nutrients supplied by the meal have ceased circulating in the blood. When blood sugar drops like this, the pancreas are signalled to stop secreting insulin and start secreting glucagon, this time from the alpha cells in the pancreatic islets. This then has the effect of causing glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles to be broken down into glucose more quickly, fats to be broken down into fatty acids and glycerol in fatty tissue and these then being released into the blood as an alternative energy source to glucose. An increase in glucose synthesis from the glycerol absorbed from the blood takes place as well as an increase in the release of glucose into the blood. All of these effects cause the blood sugar to rise again to a normal or set point level.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
When we balance our blood sugar through our diet we need to know how certain foods will affect our blood sugar levels and this is done by looking at the glycemic index or the glycemic load of a food.
The Glycemic Index is a way of measuring how much of a rise  in blood sugar levels are caused by different carbohydrates. A numerical system is used and foods are compared to glucose which is given a value of 100. The higher the number given to a food, the greater the rise in blood sugar caused by that food. Thus a low GI value means a small rise in blood sugar and a high GI value means a greater rise in blood sugar. A GI of 70 or more is considered high, a GI of 56-69 is considered medium and a GI of 55 or less is seen as low.
Glycemic Load is a more recent way of assessing a foods effect on blood sugar levels. With this system the carbohydrate content of a food is taken into account and the Glycemic Load is worked out according to that. With GI we determine how quickly a particular carbohydrate turns into sugar. With GL we determine how much of that carbohydrate is present in a serving of that food, thus it gives a more accurate reflection of a particular foods effect on blood sugar levels. A GL of 20 or more is high, 11-19 is considered medium and a GL of 10 or less is low. The GL is calculated by taking the GI and dividing it by 100 and then multiplying that number by the available carbohydrate content in grams per serving. (1)

Foods beneficial to blood sugar balance.
There are many commonly available foods which can form a part of a blood sugar balancing diet.

When testing the effect of common foods on blood sugar, Richard Anderson at the US Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Centre in Beltsville, Maryland, found that apple pie spiced with cinnamon actually had a beneficial effect on blood sugar levels. Just half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day can help to significantly lower blood sugar levels.

Oats contain beta-glucan, a type of fibre, which is said to lower cholesterol and ensures that oats causes a much lower rise in blood sugar than other more refined foods. Oats also contain magnesium, which is a co-factor for certain enzymes involved in insulin secretion and the body’s use of glucose. Home made muesli is easy to prepare and gives you a healthy start to your day.

Barley contains the same kind of cholesterol lowering fibre as oats, meaning that it is digested by the body more slowly than for example white rice and thus it gives what is called a sustained energy release to the body, preventing dramatic blood sugar highs. Barley is great added to winter soups or cold summer salads with a mint and yoghurt dressing.

This versatile fruit contains fibre meaning that when it is added to a meal it helps to slow down the rise in blood sugar one finds after eating. The healthy fats in avocadoes also help to raise insulin sensitivity in the body, making them great for blood sugar control. Knowing this you now have an excuse to make dark rye toast with guacamole and cayenne your blood sugars new best friend.

Tests have found that the high sulphur and flavonoid content of onions cause a significant drop in blood sugar levels of diabetics when they consumed 2 ounces of this food per day. Thus having onion in your soup, salad and on your lunch-time sandwich may have blood sugar benefits.

Garlic has been shown to lower blood sugar by increasing the body’s insulin sensitivity and also raising insulin production. Garlic can be used in salad dressings and pasta sauces or added to home made vegetable stock or broth.

Sweet Potatoes
Due to their high fibre content, sweet potatoes are much lower on the glycemic index than regular potatoes and thus are a good alternative for those wishing to balance their blood sugar levels. Have them baked or steamed or treat yourself to homemade fish and chips with a twist.

Other foods beneficial to blood sugar control include cherries, nuts, brown basmati rice, flaxseeds, apples, cooked beans and sprouts.

Do it your way.
The best way to have a healthy balanced diet which also helps to balance your blood sugar is to follow these guidelines, outlined by UK nutritionist Patrick Holford in his GL diet:
1.    Reduce the total amount of carbohydrates in your diet.
2.    Choose carbohydrates with a low GL, think oats with soya milk for breakfast and steamed sweet potatoes and green beans with home made mayonnaise for dinner.
3.    Combine carbohydrates and protein for sustained energy release, have brown basmati rice with salmon and vegetables or whole wheat pasta with butter beans and sundried tomatoes.
4.    Cut back on stimulants and stress. Replace your morning coffee with a mint and lemon tea, drink more water and take time every day to sit quietly and contemplate your goals and dreams for 10 minutes.

Whatever your reasons are for wanting to balance your blood sugar, doing it is easy and affordable, all it takes is a little knowledge, a willingness to try different foods and the decision to be conscious of how you fuel your body throughout the day.

Oh and remember, sometimes, just sometimes, your mother did know best!

Sources: 1 –
2 – Staying Healthy with Nutrition by Elson Haas M.D

Recommended reading: The Holford Diet by Patrick Holford.
Staying Healthy with Nutrition by Elson Haas MD.


Aphrodisiac Foods

Aphrodisiac Foods by Lela Rabie. An edited version of this article was published in the South African Journal of Natural Medicine magazine.


Aphrodisiac: 1719, from the Greek ‘aphrodisiakos’ which means, ‘inducing sexual desire’ from ‘aphrodisios’, pertaining to Aphrodite the Greek goddess of love and beauty.


Since the ancient Greek civilisations we as humans have been looking for that magic potion or substance which would render us more attractive to our desired one or peak our own interest and abilities in the bedroom.

Food, a basic human need, has also become a way to tantalize and delight, whether it be through taste, smell, texture or actual nutritional benefit. Various cultures have some surprising ideas on what ignites the flames of desire, think about powdered rhino horn, Spanish fly (powdered beetle) and dried bits of seals or tigers. Here, I have chosen a few more commonly available and conservation-friendly aphrodisiac foods to explore.



Possibly the best-know of aphrodisiac foods, it is said that the legendary Casanova had 50 fresh oysters for breakfast every morning, in the raw, so to speak. Nutritionally oysters contain zinc and selenium, both of which help with testosterone manufacture in the body. Zinc is also an important nutrient for male prostate function. Tests have found that the high amounts of D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate in raw oysters, increase testosterone levels in male rats, however, there is no evidence to suggest the results would be the same for human subjects. The appearance and texture of fresh oysters are considered by most to be the secret to their aphrodisiac status. Some oysters also change their sex from male to female and back and this likely has given rise to the opinion that these treasures of the sea allow one to experience the feminine and masculine sides of love.



Perhaps not the most obvious of aphrodisiac foods, the Aztecs and Mayans used to eat these fruits to enhance sexual desirability, the Aztecs called it ‘Ahuacat’ or ‘testicle tree’ and it is a traditional remedy for erectile dysfunction. Nutritionally, one can’t go very wrong with avocadoes, they lead all fruits in beta-carotene content and have more potassium than bananas. The sugar content in an avocado actually becomes less as it ripens and avocadoes have more protein, magnesium, potassium, folic acid, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, panthothenic acid, Vitamin E and Vitamin K per ounce than any other fruit. High in fat, the good news is that the fat in avocadoes is mostly the ‘good’ unsaturated kind which does not raise blood cholesterol. 1

The Catholic priests in Spain clearly agreed with the Aztecs as they forbade their parishioners to partake of this fruit. Whether its aphrodisiac properties are fact or fiction, a starter of slightly ripe avocado slices layered with thin slices of  a good Camembert cheese and drizzled with a sweet balsamic vinegar, all garnished with freshly ground black pepper, probably wouldn’t harm the romance of your evening!


Truffles: Considered by the Romans and Greeks to be an aphrodisiac, the musky scent of truffles is said to stimulate and sensitize the skin to touch. Truffles contain androstenol, a pheromone found in male underarm sweat, which may in part give rise to their claim to fame as an aphrodisiac food. These delicacies come in two main varieties, black truffles from Perigord in France  and white truffles from Alba in Italy. Black truffles need to be slightly cooked and white truffles are usually eaten raw, sliced paper thin. At around $600 per pound, truffles are one of the pricier aphrodisiac foods but then, who can put a price on love?


Alcohol: In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the drunk porter at the gate quips the following when describing the effects of alcohol: ‘Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.’ The porter has a point, in moderation alcohol lessens inhibitions and bathes most companions in a rosy glow but in excess it can have a disastrous effect on an amorous evening. The secret? Stick to one glass of champagne with your oysters so you can indulge a little more later on.


Chocolate: It is said that the Aztecs called chocolate, ‘nourishment of the Gods’ and there are only a few among us who would disagree. Often cited in surveys as being many womens favourite feel-good food, there is actually a surprising amount of scientific back-up to chocolates mood enhancing properties. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which also occurs naturally in the brain. During orgasm PEA reaches peak levels and administering PEA increases dopamine, which stimulates the pleasure centres in the brain. PEA is also similar to amphetamine and can have similar effects such as increased excitement and giddiness. Chocolate also contains tryptophan and anandamide. Tryptophan is used by the brain to manufacture serotonin, which can produce feelings of elation, in fact the drug Ecstacy works by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Anandamide (which means internal bliss) binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and mimicks the effects of cannabinoid drugs, for example, a sense of well-being, euphoria and heightened sensitivity. PEA and anandamide may interact with the stimulants caffeine and theobromine found in chocolate and with each other. The effect of these interactions can be sexually stimulating. Cacao also contains two N-acyl-ethanolamines (NEAs), these slow down the breakdown of anandamide and so prolong its effects.

In the movie, 'Chocolat', the character played by Juliet Binoche, enchants an entire village with the magical properties of chocolate, who knows? Perhaps this is not such a far-fetched idea after all?


Some other aphrodisiac foods:

Nutmeg:  The nutmeg tree is a wide evergreen, native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Nutmeg has been used medicinally and as a spice since 700BC. Mace and nutmeg are two spices from the same fruit, with nutmeg being the dried kernel and mace the dried shell which surrounds the seed. Nutmeg is sweeter, more delicate and more aromatic than mace. In some Asian countries, nutmeg has been prized as an aphrodisiac for centuries and it is believed to impart strength and enhance sexual prowess. Nutmeg contains myristicin which is a component of 'the love drug', MDA or ecstacy which can produce a hallucinogenic effect.

Chilli: Capsaicin, a substance found in chillies can give the body a temporary high. The body's reaction to eating strong chilli is similar to feelings experienced during sex, for example, increased sweating, circulation and heart rate.

Strawberries: Erotic literature describes these as 'fruit nipples'. Strawberries are high in Vitamin C and are easy to eat with your hands. These sensuous fruits leave a delicious taste in the mouth and a sweet scent lingering on the breath.

Figs: An open fig is thought by some to emulate the female genitalia and this is believed to be a sexual stimulant. In Italy, Black Mission figs are served in a cool bowl of water.

Asparagus: In the 19th century, three courses of asparagus were served to bridegrooms on their wedding day due to this foods reputed aphrodisiac powers. Whether or not these powers are real or imagined, remains a matter of personal opinion as there are few facts to support this belief.


Nutrients for Sexual Vitality:

In order to maintain healthy sexual function, there are some nutrients the body needs regularly.

Vitamin C is an anti-oxidant which helps protect sperm from free-radicals. Food sources are: chilli peppers, tomatoes, citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli and spinach.
Vitamin E helps with the formation of sex hormones and sperm and can be found in asparagus, peas, spinach, nuts, eggs and grains.

Vitamin A is essential for the formation of sperm and sex hormones, food sources of this vitamin are broccoli, papaya, eggs, pumpkins, carrots, apricots, tomatoes and dandelion greens.
Vitamin B6 decreases the risk of erectile dysfunction and helps to combat symptoms of PMS, it can be found in oats, beans, wheat germ, yeast and bananas.
Vitamin B12  deficiency can contribute to impotence and infertility, it can be included in the diet by eating meat, shellfish, fish and eggs.

Folate is an important nutrient for the development of sperm,  it helps to prevent birth defects, facilitates the production of dopamine and can be found in beans, dark green leafy vegetables and in grains.

Calcium helps reduce PMS symptoms and builds strong bones, it is found in sardines, brazil nuts, tofu, almonds and seaweed.
L-arginine is important in facilitating erections and vaginal lubrication, food sources are  meat, seeds, grains and nuts.

Niacin, this nutrient could enhance sexual flush and tactile sensation and is found in dates, asparagus, beans, avocadoes, peanuts, fish, lean meats, peas and broccoli.
Pantothenic acid may improve endurance and plays a role in the formation of sex hormones, it can be found in beans, broccoli, molasses, poultry, nuts, eggs and beef.
Selenium, a deficiency of this important nutrient has been linked to miscarriage in pregnant women and to infetility in both sexes, food sources of selenium are brown rice, garlic, eggs, meat and Brazil nuts.

Thiamin, boosts energy and can be found in beans, seeds and wholegrains.

Zinc is a nutrient which helps prevent PMS symptoms and deficiency can lead to miscarriage in pregnant women, zinc is also important to sperm and testosterone production and can be found in meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, pumpkin seeds, garlic, spinach and wholegrains.


Magnesium, amongst other functions, magnesium helps with preventing cramps and other PMS symptoms. A relaxing nutrient it can be added to the diet by eating apples, avocadoes, apricots, fish, tofu, nuts and wholegrains.


Sensual cooking.

You can start your seduction in the kitchen by creating a relaxed atmosphere and serving foods which lift the mood and stimulate the senses.

Try coating strawberries in melted dark chocolate, chill in the fridge for an hour and serve dusted with fine castor sugar and a bowl of whipped cream on the side for dipping. Perfect for a dessert which can be eaten with the fingers and transferred to the bedroom.

Melt blocks of 70% dark chocolate in espresso cups of cacao, sprinkle with chilli powder and cinnamon and serve hot.

Place a bowl of figs in cool water as a centerpiece to your table, adding a few floating candles and flower petals for a romantic effect. Later remove the candles and take turns feeding the succulent fruits to one another.

Include some asparagus in your apperitif, some avocado in your salad and some nutmeg and chilli in your main course and you are well on your way to a highly spiced evening!


Every meal can be a sensuous experience if you remember to truly taste, smell and savour each bite. The company of your loved one and a willingness to eat with your hands in the glow of candlelight and a background of soft music may just help your evening reach the boudoir rather sooner than you thought.

Whether the aphrodisiac properties of most foods are fact or fiction remains to be seen. I, for one, am perfectly happy to volunteer for in-depth research on a regular basis!





Recommended reading:

Sexual Fitness, Wuh, Hank C K, M.D and Fox, Mei Mei (All authors surnames first)

Berkeley Publishing group, Division of Penguin Putnam Inc. New York, USA 2001

ISBN: 039952746X