Most people who tried to lose weight at some point in their life will be familiar with carbohydrates, though not all will share the same view. “High carb” versus “low carb” has been a polarising debate for decades, so much so that many of our clients or friends aren’t even sure what to think, let alone whether they are good or bad for us.
In this article, I am going to discuss what role carbohydrates play in our diet and why we need them, however, before I do that let us have a closer look at some carbohydrate facts.
Claire, our resident sports nutritionist, personal trainer and sports massage therapist, has created a selection of guides available for you to pick up from the clinic reception. Here is what she found out about carbohydrates.
Carbs – the chemical structure
Carbohydrates are molecules (made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) that provide energy. This includes simple sugars (like refined white sugar or honey), starches (like potatoes or grains) and dietary fibre (like wheat bran). Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, in the form of the form of a simple sugar called glucose. The brain is the greediest consumer of energy, using about 20% of the body’s total daily intake. Each gram of carbohydrate provides 4kcal of energy.
Carbs and Insulin
When we eat, the pancreas releases insulin, which signals to cells in the body to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. Diabetics either cannot produce insulin (Type 1) or their cells no longer respond to it (Type 2), which means they cannot regulate their blood sugar levels. Consequently, it is vital that people living with diabetes consume a constant amount of carbohydrates throughout the day, ideally from unprocessed, high-fibre sources to help stabilise the amount of glucose in the blood.
High Carb Benefits
- High-carbohydrate foods tend to be low in fat, high in fibre, and rich in vitamins and mineral
- Energy is readily available for the body to use or store
- More easily digestible than protein or fat
- Unprocessed sources of carbohydrate (like whole grains, fruits and vegetables) are high in fibre, which regulates the release of energy
Low Carb Benefits
- Avoiding carbohydrates can reduce the consumption of highly processed foods
- A low-carbohydrate diet that is high in protein will help preserve muscle mass even if overall calorie intake is lower (as when dieting for weight loss)
- Very low carbohydrate intakes (<20g/day) have been shown to increase the body’s use of fat as a fuel source (ketosis)
Carbohydrates in Food
High Carb or Low Carb?
Many people still believe that carbohydrates are bad for them and that they are responsible for weight gain. There are plenty of restrictive diets rising in popularity that in fact encourage people to cut carbs almost completely (e.g. the Atkins, Dukan or ketogenic diet).
But is this really such a good idea? The question is very complex and giving a simple answer is not always helpful. Carbohydrate-rich foods, being one of the macronutrients, do not only provide energy but they can play an essential role in a healthy and balanced diet and aid our body’s fibre, calcium, iron and vitamin B intake. Consequently, eliminating them from your diet may lead to health problems.
On another note, as scientific evidence is emerging, it seems that eating low-carb may improve certain medical conditions and can be beneficial for people with specific health issues. If you have been contemplating the Atkins or the Ketogenic diet, I recommend you consult your GP and a dietitian to find out if it’s a good idea for you and we wouldn’t recommend trying them without medical supervision.
What Science Says About Carbs
If you are still not convinced about the importance of carbohydrates, you can have a look at the recent study that was carried out in the USA of which findings confirmed that moderate carb intake may be best for our health.
However, not all carbs are created equal. NHS guidelines recommend that you should avoid consuming too much so-called free sugars which are usually added to soft drinks, biscuits, chocolate and aim at having more starchy foods like bread, rice, pasta, ideally wholegrain or with skins on to make sure we are getting enough of fibre.
Would you like to learn more, or you feel you would benefit from tailored nutrition advice, feel free to contact Claire, our sports nutritionist. She will be more than happy to help you with any questions regarding a healthy balanced diet.