Carbs. Are they the enemy?
They're certainly getting a lot of attention at the moment, but what's the real story behind carbs. Are they really the enemy?
Unfortunately like many things around food and diet the information on carbohydrates has become confused! It doesn't need to be. It's an important topic and usually one of the first things I 'clear up' with clients. I thought I'd share my thoughts and try to simplify the discussion with a series of questions.
First up let's clarify the word 'carbs'. When we think of carbs most of us think of bread, pasta, rice, biscuits, sugary foods, (commonly these foods are also processed and highly refined foods). Fruit and vegetables also offer us carbohydrates (along with other nutrients). Something we can easily forget, with much of the limelight on heavily processed carbs. When I refer to carbs in this post I'm referring to the processed and refined carbs i.e. anything that's been refined in some way to become the end product, ready for us to consume. It's food that's no longer in its whole and most natural form. (Forgive me if I'm stating the obvious but you'll see why it's important to clarify). I've tried to answer some common questions, including;
1. Do Carbs lead to weight gain?
Yes. While carbohydrate is a fundamental nutrient required for our health and wellbeing, most carbs today are eaten in a processed and refined form in vast quantities that far exceeds our typical nutritional requirements.
It's important to remember that there are 3 macronutrients that we rely on for optimum health and wellbeing. We are very familiar with them - fats, proteins and carbohydrates. They are Macronutrients - we require these foods in large amounts. It is important to note however that we get carbs from nearly everything we eat (meats, fats & oils being the exception), so we simply don’t need to eat bulk carbs. Interestingly, we evolved eating much less carbohydrate than we eat today, and our bodies manufacture glucose (for energy needs) from both fatty acids (fats) and amino acids (proteins). I feel that the double whammy effect of our modern, more sedentary lifestyles combined with a highly processed and refined high-carb diet is a major problem. Lets not forget that the traditional Inuit have thrived for thousands of years almost entirely on meat and fish (a high fat diet).
When our body is well nourished we will reach our optimum weight. Which for many of us is not so easy for example, we hold onto weight when the body is under stress or is toxic, despite what we eat. We often don’t realise these conditions are impacting us on a cellular level
2. Are there good and bad carbs?
Yes. Processed and refined foods i.e. commonly packaged (or manufactured) foods and white foods (that provide us with little nutrition), are generally carbohydrates that do not serve our wellbeing or have a place in our diet. They can make our digestive systems work hard to metabolise, digest and absorb or eliminate and these carbs dramatically influence our blood sugars and therefore can put stress on our system.
Carbohydrates that serve us well are those in their most natural and whole form i.e. with very little if any processing or refinement especially vegetables and properly prepared grains and seeds.
3. So do carbs get an unnecessarily bad wrap, (specifically from the media)?
Yes and No. Yes because they are important but we do need to consider the type of carbohydrate we’re eating and how much. The processed, refined foods (carbs) e.g. refined sugar and packaged goods that can play havoc with our chemistry, deserve a bad wrap.
And then I hear people saying that they're eliminating carbs to cut calories (lose weight). I believe this is unwise. As mentioned above, vegetables, especially leafy greens are incredibly important to our wellbeing and especially in this day and age. And perhaps think twice about the word 'carbs'. Perhaps it's more about eliminating processed foods and in place of them 'adding in' the good gear i.e real. food. Food in its most natural and unrefined, whole form that our bodies can easily recognise and metabolise.
4. I was asked recently, 'how wise is it to cut out an entire food group from our diet'?
The concept of food groups is an out-dated one. I think it’s wise and simpler, to think of foods as nutrients rather and what foods support our vitality as individuals. And to also consider, how much exercise are we doing? How stressed are we? How much do we enjoy our day? These activities also impact on the nutritional needs of the body and how we metabolise. We are each very different. When we eat real food we don't have to think twice about WHAT we're eating.
So rather than concern ourselves if we're eating all the food groups? perhaps an easier decision to make is are we eating a wide range of nutrients, especially fats, protein AND carbohydrate? Just Eat Real Food i.e. JERF!
5. How are carbohydrates used in the body?
Every cell in our body can use carbohydrate for energy. The BIG issue is about avoiding the processed and refined carbs we now commonly eat in such vast quantities and adding more of the essential fats and proteins, especially fats into our diets.
Carbs are transported by the blood to the various tissues and organs and very easily used at a cellular level for energy.
There are two types of carbohydrates -- simple and complex. Simple carbs are sugars, such as the ones found in lollies, fruits and most processed foods. Complex carbohydrates are starches found in beans, nuts, vegetables and whole grains. Complex carbs are absorbed slowly into our systems, avoiding spikes in blood sugar levels and energy crashes, unlike simple carbs.
6. Aren't carbs important for controlling blood sugars?
Carbs are commonly used to help manage blood sugars. Steady blood sugars are a key indicator for longevity, we need to manage them. Simply, simple carbs (processed and refined foods) help to SPIKE blood sugars, creating a roller coaster of energy highs and lows through the body as the body works hard to use this abundance of energy and glucose. Good fats and protein provide a much more stable and satiating form of energy for the body and support our blood sugars more kindly. Using carbs to manage blood sugar, while possibly providing a short-term fix, is not a long-term answer.
Whatever choices you choose to make around your diet, avoid wholesale, dramatic change, especially if you're suffering from a chronic illness.
There is a lot of evidence to support a major reduction if not total elimination of 'carbs' in our diet. The issue in my view is the “fat epidemic” along with its many related chronic illnesses which has really only surfaced in the last 50 or so years, along with the rapid increase in availability, marketing and consumerism of convenience foods i.e. mostly high-carb foods and therefore a high-carb diet.
There's no doubt we need to get back to eating pure real foods in their most natural forms. This in itself translates into a significant reduction in carbohydrate intake and an increase in nutrient-rich nourishing foods.
Eat with the seasons, local and organic, keep it simple and above all, enjoy your deliciously, nourishing home cooked meals (without guilt or fear of what you're eating) and get the kids involved too!
Now I'd love to hear what your thoughts are or experience with carbs has been?