I have been asked many times recently “if I want to lose weight/feel healthier/have more energy I should cut out carbs, right?”
Carbs have been given such a bad name over the years, with celebrities endorsing low carb diets, the media highlighting certain diets such as the Atkins diet, the Paleo, the ketogenic diet, as well as misinformed messages being spread on social media. There always seems to be a new version of the low carb diet making waves.
So why do people think that carbs are the enemy?
First of all, here are some common myths:
● Carbs are fattening
● Carbs are carbs
● Banning carbs means not eating bread, pasta, rice and potatoes
● Carbs cause your blood glucose levels to shoot up
Now, lets get the facts:
• Per gram, there are exactly the same kcals in carbohydrates as there are in protein – 4kcal, so that means if you eat 100g of carbs and 100g of protein without anything added, you will ingest the same number of kcals. Carbs in themselves are not fattening – it is what you put on them that increases your overall energy content, so adding butter to your baked potato or a creamy, cheesy sauce to your pasta will suddenly cause your meal to contain a lot more energy and saturated fat. If you avoid the high energy/fat additions and stick to a tomato based sauce with loads of veggies, topping your jackets with baked beans or another low fat/high protein alternative, your meal will not only be healthy but will provide your body with what it needs – a good source of energy, along with a variety of nutrients such as B vitamins, fibre and iron
•Following on from this, the type of carbs you eat are important. We can divide them into three groups
1. Sugar – adults and children in the UK eat too much free sugar and this is what is added to food and drinks by manufacturers (in cakes, biscuits, fizzy drinks, ready meals, breakfast cereals etc) or at home (sugar in tea/coffee, on breakfast cereals etc). Sugars found naturally in milk, fruit and vegetables do not count as free sugars .
2. Starch – this is found in plant based products such as potatoes, pasta and rice and they are the main source of carbs in our diets. We should be looking to choose wholegrain versions when we can, such as brown rice and pasta, wholemeal bread and potatoes with their skins. They contain a range of nutrients such as fibre, iron, protein, calcium, vitamins and are a great source of energy. Without adequate fibre in our diets, our bowels will become sluggish and we will suffer with constipation. The non digestible fibre found in wholegrains helps other food and waste products move through our gut, bulking up our stools and enabling us to pass them more easily (plenty of fluid is also important). Fibre can help with weight loss as it makes us feel full more quickly, therefore reducing the risk of over eating. Some types of fibre (for example those found in oats) can help reduce our cholesterol levels too.
3. Fibre – this is found in the cell walls of plants. We should be eating 30g of fibre each day but people in the UK are, on average, not eating enough. Eating plenty of fibre is associated with a lower risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer and can also help improve fertility, therefore it is not a good idea to eliminate main sources of fibre from our diets
• Carbs are not just found in starchy foods, they are also found in fruit and vegetables. So cutting carbs out of your diet would also involve cutting out these vital sources of vitamins and minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals
• When we look at the effects of carbs on blood glucose levels, the type of carbs are important. Consuming food and drinks with free sugars will cause your blood glucose levels to go up because the sugar contained in those foods/drinks is released into your blood stream more quickly. That is why, again, it is important to include wholegrain sources of carbs in your diet, as they are released more slowly, can help stabilise your blood glucose levels, will keep you feeling fuller for longer and are a vital part of every meal as long as you keep portion sizes to a sensible level.
In addition to all this, lets not forget that carbs are the main source of energy for your body and the preferred source of energy for your brain, nervous system and red blood cells. If you do not get enough in your diet, you will feel lethargic, weak, irritable and will not have the energy to do your day to day jobs efficiently. If your body does not get enough, it will look for other sources of energy – protein and fat. Protein can be used as fuel but first it needs to be deconstructed by the liver and kidneys to form glucose. High protein intakes can put those organs under extra strain and that can be risky for those with pre-existing conditions. Fat can also be used as fuel but if this is done on a regular basis, by-products called ketones can form. This can cause symptoms such as dizziness, lethargy, nausea, dehydration and irritability and in extreme cases cause the body’s pH to drop to dangerous levels.
So in summary, carbs are not the enemy! Yes, it is a good idea to reduce our consumption of free sugars; they are not an essential part of our diets. However, if we were to cut out all carbs, we would increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies, suffer with chronic constipation, cause our bodies to use proteins (remember our organs are proteins!) and fats for energy, and if the carbs are being replaced with high fats foods/higher fat animal proteins, more saturated fat will be consumed which will in turn increase the cholesterol in the bloodstream and ultimately increase the risk of heart disease. So choose wholegrain carbs, be aware of portion sizes and most importantly, enjoy!