The simple answer to this question is NO! What we should fear however, is simply too much of the wrong kind. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for our bodies and brains. Simply put, they are digested, broken down into glucose and are converted into energy. Carbs are vital for us to function, to workout, to think clearly and even to remember things.
Too many carbs
This is where it can be easy to run into trouble. When glucose is made, we either use it, or the excess is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver, muscles or as fat for later use. The liver has a capacity of approximately 100g of glycogen, the muscles 500g and the rest will be stored as fat. Whilst the liver and muscles have a limited storage capacity, unfortunately there is practically no limit on how many calories the body can store as fat.
Too little carbs
At the other end of the scale, when we deprive our bodies of carbs, to less than 20 grams a day, we see a process called Ketosis. Here, our bodies break down the stored fat, releasing Ketones. Whilst that may seem positive for weight loss, it can cause nausea, headaches, mental fatigue and bad breath. Whilst extreme carb reduction may cause us to lose some weight initially, it’s neither a pleasant nor sustainable regime for most people.
So, how do we get it right for our optimal wellbeing?
Firstly, it’s important to understand that not all carbs are equal. They may be simple, complex, natural or refined. They affect our bodies in different ways.
The lowdown on Simple Carbs
SIMPLE carbs are actually simple sugars, made up of 1-2 sugar molecules. They are easy to breakdown and provide our bodies with a quick release of energy.
- NATURAL simple carbs include fruit and dairy produce. Both are good as they bring something else to the party; fruit with vitamins, minerals, fibre and water, and dairy with vitamins A & D plus calcium and potassium.
- REFINED simple carbs include refined sugar or sucrose found in processed sugar, as you find in biscuits, cakes, pastries, chocolate, jams, pizzas, snack bars and sweets. These foods cause a spike then drop in our blood sugar levels, leaving us satisfied for a short period of time followed by a sudden energy dip.
The lowdown on Complex Carbs
COMPLEX carbs are made up of 3 or more sugar molecules. They are harder to break down and provide us with a slower release of energy.
NATURAL complex carbs include whole grains and vegetables, which can be further categorised as starchy or non-starchy.
- Starchy carbs include whole grains such as whole wheat, whole oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, whole rye, amaranth, barley, bulgur wheat, freekeh and kamut.
- Starchy vegetables include roots, bulbs and kernels, such as corn, peas, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, zucchini and yams.
- Non-starchy vegetables have less calories and are typically the flowering part of the plant such as lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, cucumber, onions, peppers and tomatoes.
- These are good for us as they not only provide sustained energy, but also provide us with fibre, vitamins, minerals and protein.
REFINED complex carbs are the white carbs; white rice, flour, pasta, bread and foods containing them such as cakes, biscuits and pastries. As with the refined simples, they bring the energy, but without other benefits.
10 tips for making carbs work for you
- Consider your overall food intake. Eating too much, no matter what foods you eat will lead to weight gain. Cutting out your rice at dinner will not make you lose weight if you’ve overeaten up to that point. It’s much more a case of eating appropriately to meet your daily needs and dividing what you eat between carbs, protein and fat accordingly.
- Eat non-starchy carbs, i.e. vegetables whenever possible and throughout the day. They leave you feeling fuller and result in long-lasting energy. They also have little effect on your blood sugar levels, thus stabilising your energy throughout the day.
- If you are inactive, focus on eating more protein, healthy fats and the non-starchy carbs. If you are active, you can include more complex carbs in your diet and eat them at the right times, e.g. for weight loss it’s best to eat your carbs after your workout or earlier in the day.
- Take time to consider portion sizes. Consider using a smaller plate and sharing dishes when eating out, e.g. one salad and pasta dish between two people.
- Consider your need for energy over the course of the day and take on carbs strategically, e.g. Limit your carb intake before bedtime when your body will not be able to use the energy they provide.
- Combine simple carbs with protein to minimise the effects on your blood sugar level e.g. apple with peanut butter.
- Take time to read and understand nutrition labels.
- Limit alcohol and consider its contribution to your overall intake. Most alcoholic drinks contain carbs and need to be accounted for e.g. one glass of wine can equal four cookies or 1 pint of beer, 1 slice of pizza
- Be mindful when eating. Ask yourself if you are hungry before you eat and not because something is put in front of you. Chew your food to aid digestion, take time to enjoy it and listen to your body when it signals that you feel full.
- Be kind to yourself and know that the occasional refined carbs will do you no harm.
Check our guide here:
So enjoy your carbs. Just make the right choices in the right amounts.