Many fad diets that demonise carbs have boomed in popularity, promising rapid weight loss results (think Atkins, Dukan, South Beach & Keto to name a few…), so it’s no wonder this myth that ‘carbs make you fat’ has become so prolific. However, we’re going to delve into why carbohydrates are essential in our diet and bust some of these carb myths for good!
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient (alongside protein and fats), meaning that they are needed in large proportions in our diet and that they provide us with energy, as opposed to micronutrients that we need in smaller proportions and don’t provide us with energy (vitamins and minerals).
Carbohydrates in foods are found in the form of either sugar, starch or fibre. Sugars are the carbohydrates added to products to make them taste sweeter, often referred to as free sugars or added sugars.
Sugars are found in foods like biscuits, sweets, chocolate, breakfast cereals, cake, flavoured yoghurts and soft drinks. Natural sugars found in things like fruit juices, smoothies, honey and agave would still count as free sugars, however there are naturally occurring sugars found in fruit, vegetables and dairy that don’t count as free sugars – more on this in our upcoming sugar blog!
Starch is a carbohydrate found in foods that come from plants – such as bread, pasta, potatoes, and rice. Fibre also comes from foods that come from plants and is found in the cell walls, a part of the plant we can’t fully digest. Foods that are good sources of fibre include wholegrains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Carbs are our bodies preferred form of energy – if you’ve ever tried cutting or reducing your carb intake and felt quite drained and sluggish, this is probably why! When we eat carbohydrates, they are digested and broken down into a sugar – glucose – that is then absorbed from the small intestine into the bloodstream to provide our body with energy. Any glucose in our bloodstream that is not used to fuel our cells and tissues can be converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles and liver for use as energy later! Our muscles and liver have a limited capacity to store glycogen, so if there is still remaining glucose that has not been used as fuel or stored as glycogen, it will be converted to fatty acids and stored as body fat for long-term energy storage.
Additionally, depending on the type of carbohydrates we choose to consume, they can be a great source of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins that are necessary for a number of metabolic processes and iron needed to make red blood cells, as well as fibre, which is important in aiding digestion, helping us feel fuller and reducing risk of a number of diseases! Not only that, but carbohydrates can be comforting and enjoyable to eat which is just as important as a foods nutritional value.
The UK Government has produced the Eatwell Guide which gives guidance on the proportions of different foods that should be making up a healthy balanced diet. The Eatwell Guide recommends that just over 1/3 of the food we consume should be made up of starchy carbohydrates (things like bread, pasta, potatoes etc) with another over 1/3 of food being fruits & vegetables which are a key source of fibre!
We should aim to consume more complex carbohydrates where possible. These are foods like wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread, wholegrain rice, sweet potatoes, oats, and other grains such as quinoa, pulses, bulgur wheat etc. These carbohydrates release energy more slowly, helping us to feel fuller for longer, as well as being a good source of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Whereas refined carbohydrates such as white bread, rice and pasta, sweets, chocolate and crisps, release glucose and energy much more rapidly and contribute fewer nutrients essential for our body. Aim to gradually swap refined for complex carbohydrates, as well as increasing fruit and veg consumption!
For the general population, we should not be cutting out carbohydrates and definitely don’t need to in order to lose weight! In fact, we wouldn’t recommend cutting out any foods or food groups completely (unless you have an allergy or medical condition that could be made worse!). However, some individuals with medical conditions may be given slightly different dietary recommendations or told to monitor their carbohydrate intake by their GP or other healthcare professional, but this should always be done under medical supervision.
Carbs can cause weight gain if consumed in excess, but this is in no way different to consuming protein or fats in excess. Consuming any food in excess to our energy requirements can lead to weight gain over time and is not unique to any one nutrient or food group. If we have a look at how much energy each of the 3 different macronutrients contribute, carbohydrates and protein contain the exact same amount of energy, but protein hasn’t gained the same bad rep as carbs?!
The myth that carbohydrates cause weight gain arose as a result of low-carb fad diets like those I mentioned at the start of this blog. Although some people may experience weight loss when they start these diets, there’s more to them than meets the eye – stay tuned for our next blog myth busting the Keto diet!