The Truth About Carbs

There seems to be a lot of confusion around the topic of carbohydrates “carbs” at the moment. Especially with so many different new diets hitting the market on a daily basis. Atkins is the most popular closely followed by the South Beach and Ketogenic diets.

The consensus out there is the carbs are really bad for you and detrimental to your overall health. Especially bad if you are trying to lose weight or even maintain a healthy weight.

Dietitian Sian Porter says: "Carbohydrates are such a broad category and people need to know that not all carbs are the same. It's the type, quality and quantity of carbohydrate in our diet that is important.

"While we should reduce the amount of free sugar in our diet, we should base our meals on starchy carbs, particularly the higher fibre varieties."

"There is strong evidence that fibre, found in wholegrain versions of starchy carbs, for example, is good for our health."

Are you confused yet?

I wouldn’t be surprised if you were. There’s so much information and misinformation out there since everyone has their own motivations and agendas. Let’s see if we can set the record straight.

What Exactly Are Carbs?

Girl eating a healthy meal

In essence, there are two major types of carbs which are sugars like fructose and glucose and starches. There is an additional one that is hardly ever mentioned called fibre.

Which Foods Have Carbs?

You would normally find a healthy mix of carbs in our food like dairy products (ice cream, yogurt, milk), fruit, vegetables, bread, cereal, and sugary sweets and drinks.

Sugar

This is one carb that has been branded as evil not just by professionals, but even our own UK government. In fact, laws have been passed to tax sugary drinks on top of the VAT that is already applied to them.

This was imaginatively called “the sugar tax.

The levy is being applied to manufacturers. Drinks with more than 8g per 100ml will face a tax rate equivalent to 24p per litre. Those containing 5-8g of sugar per 100ml will face a slightly lower rate of tax, of 18p per litre.

This should give you an idea of just how much the government is encouraging all of us to cut down on our sugar consumption.

Again, there are many different types of sugar (too many to get into in this article). However, the one that is seen to cause the most damage are called “free sugars.”

These are not normally found in everyday fruits and vegetables, but can specifically be found in a lot of our processed foods such as sweets, chocolates, biscuits, flavoured waters, fizzy drinks, and even breakfast cereals.

These sugars can be added at home but will more likely be added by the manufacturer when the food is being made and processed.

The so-called healthy sugars found in honey, maple syrup, and fruit juices are still characterised as free sugars.

So consuming a bucket load of these sugars is still a bad idea. However, sugars found in fruit, vegetables, and milk don’t count.

Starch

As mentioned previously is normally found in bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, and certain cereals. Taken in moderation can actually provide you with a slow, steady release of energy throughout the day.

Fibre

Out of the three carbohydrates, fibre is probably one of the most straight forward ones to understand. Generally found in vegetables, bread, pasta, and pulses. It can be found in the cell walls foods that come from plants generally.

Why do we need carbs?

Carbohydrates are an important element to any balanced diet.

Energy

Even though our bodies can produce energy. We get a lot of the energy that we burn from carbs. They are broken down into glucose (sugar) before it is absorbed into our bloodstream. From here the glucose enters our system with the help of insulin.

This is such an important process since it fuels all of the bodies energy needs no matter what activity you are doing (even breathing).

Any glucose that is unused by our body is converted to glycogen found in the liver and muscles.

That’s why overloading our bodies with sugar means we have excess glucose filling our liver and muscles.

When this happens, any excess glycogen is converted into fat for long term storage of energy.

You normally find that higher fibre, starchy carbohydrates are released into your blood system slowly whereas sugary drinks and food are released a lot quicker. Hence the term “sugar rush.”

You normally get a massive boost of energy when you consume them, but then have quite a heavy low once that energy has been used.

Disease Risk

When you eat fruit and vegetables with their skins on like fruit, vegetables and varieties of wholegrain and wholewheat they provide you with an excellent source of fibre. That’s down to the fact that the vast majority of the nutrients are found in the skin.

As I mentioned before, all healthy diets should contain fibre. Not only does it promote good bowel health, but it also reduces the risk of becoming constipated (not that fun). Fibre in your diet also reduces cholesterol levels for some people (not all).

On average adults consume 19g of fibre a day, but we should actually consume 30g a day. This means the vast majority of people aren’t consuming enough fibre in their diet.

Calorie Intake

The fact that carbohydrates contain fewer calories than fat is a good reason to replace fatty, sugary foods and drinks with high fibre starchy foods. Continue to maintain this ratio, and you will cut down the overall calorie intake in your diet.

Should I cut out carbohydrates?

Believe it or not, our bodies can actually survive without sugar, but it would be quite difficult to eliminate carbohydrates from our diet completely. That’s because it is our main source of energy. Without it, our body will use protein and fat for energy.

Carbohydrates not only provide us with energy, but they are also a great source of different nutrients like vitamin b, calcium, and iron. Without a healthy intake of these nutrients, your body is at risk of contracting several diseases.

It’s not so bad when you are younger because your body can fight against them. However, as you get older, it becomes harder and harder to avoid contracting something. Your body needs all the help it can get.

A lot of people try to replace their carbohydrate intake with fatty processed products and protein, but this just increases the cholesterol levels in your blood and increases the risk of heart disease.

Doesn’t Protein & Fat Provide Energy?

While fat, protein and carbohydrates are all sources of energy in your diet, the amount of energy each one produces does vary:

  • carbohydrate provides: about 4kcal (17kJ) per gram
  • protein provides: 4kcal (17kJ) per gram
  • fat provides: 9kcal (37kJ) per gram

  • We briefly touched on cutting out carbs from our diet earlier. If you did this your body would start to convert protein into glucose.

    This would also increase your insulin and blood sugar levels surprisingly. It’s not just carbs that do that.

    One misconception is that cutting out carbs allows you to eat what you want and in whatever quantity.

    The plain fact of the matter is if you consume more calories than you burn you will actually gain weight. That’s why calorie reduction diets only work provided you follow that ration. Burn more calories than you consume.

    Are carbohydrates more filling than protein?

    To be honest, protein and carbohydrates contain roughly the same amount of calories per gram. It is the different sensation you feel that is different.

    The feeling of being full is different depending on the type of food you have eaten, the variety and portion size.

    This is different from person to person. Some people feel full after eating protein-rich foods like fish, eggs, and beans. Others feel full after eating meat and other high protein foods.

    The important thing is, ensure you include the right proportion of these for a healthy and balanced diet.

    If you can ensure that starchy foods make up about a third of what you eat and you increase your intake of fruit and vegetables, this should be the key to a healthy balanced diet.

    How can I increase my fibre intake?

    fibre choices

    There are several ways to increase your fibre intake. One of the most popular ways is to have at least five portions of fruit and veg per day.

    Here are some examples from NHS UK of the typical fibre content in some common foods:

  • Two breakfast wheat biscuits (approx. 37.5g) – 3.6g of fibre
  • One slice of wholemeal bread – 2.5g (1 slice of white bread – 0.9g)
  • 80g of cooked wholewheat pasta – 4.2g  
  • One medium (180g) baked potato (with skin) – 4.7g
  • 80g (4 heaped tablespoons) of cooked runner beans – 1.6g
  • 80g (3 heaped tablespoons) of cooked carrots – 2.2g
  • One small cob (3 heaped tablespoons) of sweetcorn – 2.2g
  • 200g of baked beans – 9.8g
  • One medium orange – 1.9g
  • One medium banana – 1.4g
  • Summary

    So there you have it. I suppose the main takeaway here is to ensure you have a healthy balanced diet that includes a mixture of carbs and healthy sugars often found in fruit. There’s nothing wrong with having a sneaky packet of Maltesers or packet of Fruit Pastels. Just not too many.

    There isn’t anything written in this article that is incredibly groundbreaking. A lot of the advice is as old as the hills. Eat lots of healthy fruit and vegetables, maintain a healthy diet and exercise. Not rocket science eh?

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    Comments

    Lorraine - March 7, 2019

    Thank you very much for this article – in general we seem to be taking notice of the old saying “you are what you eat”. When you’re a sugar addict – it’s so much more yummier to hit the sweets n chocolates etc to get that sugar rush. What is your opinion on juicing? Lots of good fresh fruit n veggies (with their skin on) , though it’s hard to go liquid I must add. I must say – if you go for going healthy – it’s life changing & yes you’re right about energy levels etc.

    Looking forward to future articles. :D

    Gloria Hepburn - March 5, 2019

    Very informative articles, keep up the good work

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