Carbs are not bad for you!

Carbs are a key macronutrient / food type, but there’s often a lot of confusion about whether they’re good for you and if you can lose weight whilst eating them. So here’s my take…I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The first thing to say is that carbs are not bad for you. Carbs are an ideal source of energy for the body because they can be converted more easily than protein or fat into glucose, which is the form of sugar that’s transported and used by the body.

The issue with carbs is two-fold:

  1. A diet too high in carbs can upset the delicate balance of the body’s blood sugar levels, which can leave us feeling irritable, tired, craving more and with higher amounts of body fat.
  2. Not all carbs are made equal. Many of the carbs that we think about are heavily processed, full of sugar and have little nutritional benefit.

Without going into the detailed science behind it:

  • Simple carbs – referred to as sugar, get broken down quickly in the body and so provide us with a short spike in blood sugar or energy. But our bodies like our glucose levels to be fairly stable so the liver and muscles take up what they can and any extra is converted into body fat. Simple carbs tend to leave us unsatisfied because they’ve been stripped of nutrients and they’re often found alongside high amounts of sodium and industrial chemicals such as flavourings, trans fats or preservatives which stimulate our appetite and leave us wanting more – i.e. eat a whole bag of biscuits, crave more, still feel hungry half hour later. So whilst we often reach for processed carbs when we need a pick me up, we don’t typically achieve our goal (well not for long anyway!) because of the insulin rollercoaster we start.
  • Complex carbs – referred to as starch, take longer to break down and so provide energy over a longer period of time, as well as leaving us feeling fuller for longer. When found in whole foods, they are also typically accompanied by micronutrients, phytonutrients, fibre and water which provide other benefits which include feeding our friendly gut bacteria, lowering cholesterol and keeping our bowels moving.

And we can consume either of these types of carbs from natural sources (like vegetables, whole grain products, pulses, etc for complex carbs or fruit for simple carbs) or artificial sources (like white bread, white pasta, white rice for complex carbs or cakes, biscuits, etc. for simple carbs)

So is fruit bad for us? Should we only eat complex carbs? Not exactly. (Nothing is ever straightforward hey!)

Fruit isn’t bad for us at all and contains lots of benefits besides energy – blueberries have amazing antioxidants in them, for example. Fruit just wasn’t as readily available in our hunter gatherer days (when we were much more active typically too). And it’s usually consumed in most of our diets alongside large quantities of artificial sugar. Any initial focus should definitely be on reducing artificial sugar sources instead, but if you’re trying to reset your system you may want to limit the amount of fruit you have initially so you don’t go overboard on natural sugars instead. We are programmed to crave sugar and sugar is thought to be as addictive as cocaine! On the subject of which…be warned that significantly reducing or completely removing sugar from your diet might well cause withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, irritability and insomnia, particularly in the second half of the first week. However, most people report improved sleep, mood and energy once they get past this, so hang on in there if you go down this route.

Simple carbs can play a valuable role in the rapid refuelling of sportspeople & athletes during competitions or training. And they can help underweight people to gain weight when they’re struggling to eat enough. So as always, nothing is ever completely black and white.

And the “right” amount of carbs for you will depend on so many factors, like your body composition, activity levels, etc.

The key message to take away is that if you want to fuel your body better, for longer (as well as helping out all of the good bacteria that live in your gut), opt for the natural complex carbs found in vegetables, whole grain products, pulses, quinoa, etc. the majority of the time. And enjoy the simple carbs in moderation, ideally from natural sources.

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