It’s common knowledge these days that many weight-conscious people avoid carbs. I have also been through my share of experimenting with low carb diets. And it’s clear that the low carb business is booming. There is a growing availability of low carb products available in dedicated food shops, and even supermarkets have latched on to the low carb craze. And let’s not forget the cook books and food blogs dedicated to this popular eating philosophy. But how did we get here? Just what happened to turn one of our favourite food staples into the “bad guys” of today’s dieting world?
How did carbs get their bad reputation?
I don’t know exactly when I first started noticing that the low carb philosophy has caught on. In fact, I remember at school we were taught that carbs should form the biggest part of our diet. Anyone else remember the old food pyramid with grains and bread at the bottom? So what changed?
In the last few years, a lot of different low carb fad diets have gained popularity. I say “fad” because they are so restricted and incredibly difficult for the average person to sustain. Some have even been making headlines in the news. Just think of Tim Noakes’ low carb high-fat way of eating, known by most people as banting. He was not the first to suggest that cutting out carbs could help with weight-loss and some of you will remember the Atkins diet that was popular in the 90’s and earlier 2000’s. Then there’s also the Paleo and Primal diets that both favour eating whole unprocessed foods and avoiding carbohydrates like grains.
Like me, you might know a few people who have followed these diets and achieved fantastic results. But, as with any restrictive weight-loss methods, people are often unable to sustain these results. To begin with though, these dieters do lose a lot of weight, causing them, and those around them, to assume that carbs are the clear culprit that has kept them from losing weight all along.
Even the fact that these short-term results cannot be sustained a few months, or years, down the line seems like evidence that carbs were the root of the problem. While it’s probably closer to the truth that most people won’t be able to achieve long lasting results by following an extremely restricted lifestyle and there’s bound to be some weight-gain again a few months after dramatic short-term weight loss.
Another reason why carbs have such a bad name might be that people have an incorrect definition of what a carbohydrate actually is. When people refer to working off their carbs what do they have in mind? I doubt that they are talking about unprocessed whole grain carbohydrates like pulses, vegetables or brown rice. It’s more likely that they are referring to refined carb sources like cereals, bread or sweet treats like cake. Sadly these healthy carbohydrates that provide our bodies with energy, minerals, vitamins and fibre are now lumped into a category with foods they have hardly anything in common with!
Thirdly I believe that food intolerances have also played their part and contributed to the current low-carb revolution. You may know a few people who refuse to eat food containing gluten, a protein found in carbohydrate sources like wheat, barley and rye. Now it’s true that some people are legitimately gluten intolerant or suffer from Celiac disease (a digestive disorder that causes inflammation in the intestines as well as diarrhoea). Practically people who have been diagnosed with gluten intolerance therefore can’t allow items like white wheat flour and oats in their diet.
Interestingly it seems this protein that has formed part of our diet for ages has now become unpopular with many people who have never been tested for gluten intolerance. Perhaps it has something to do with the improved health experienced by people who cut gluten out of their diets for medical reasons? Or perhaps it is down to good marketing and the number of different gluten free products that are becoming more commonly available? Whatever the cause it seems that, at least for some people, gluten has become synonymous with carbohydrates. And if gluten is bad for you then surely carbs must be bad for you too, right? Wrong, gluten is only bad for you if you are actually gluten intolerant, and even then not all carbohydrates contain gluten.
So am I suggesting that carbs may not be as bad as they have been made out to be in the last few years? If we want to understand the role of carbohydrates in our diet we should take a look at what carbs actually are and what value they contribute to our diets.
What is a carbohydrate?
At base level a carb is a molecule that is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It is one of the three main building blocks of food – all foods will fall in one of three categories: carbohydrates, proteins or fats. Typically carbs contain sugars, starch and cellulose (fibre).
So this means that many different food items can be classified as carbs, yes a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts can definitely be classified as carbohydrates, but so can carrots, barley and lentils. Carbohydrates don’t need to be refined sugary foods with hardly any nutritional value, in addition to helping give you energy many carbs are also filled with fibre and vital nutrients.
This means that you have to be wise when it comes to choosing the carbs that form a regular part of your diet. The important thing is that the foods you choose should add value and pack a nutritional punch.
What do carbohydrates do?
As I mentioned above carbs help to give you energy as well as protecting your muscles from being used for energy production – the body uses both fat and muscles to provide energy if the food you eat doesn’t provide you with sufficient energy. They also help boost your serotonin (the feel-good hormone) levels and can be an important source of fibre in your diet which helps keep your digestive system healthy and functional.
So what’s the takeaway – do carbs have a place in a healthy diet?
I would say that the answer is a firm yes, but that you need to consider your carbohydrate sources carefully. Now that we’ve established that not all carbs are bad for you which ones should you cut back on, and which ones should be part of your regular food intake?
Examples of less nutritious carbs:
- Baked treats like cake, croissants and cookies
- Sugary soft drinks
- White rice
- White pasta
Examples of nutritious carbs
- Leafy greens like kale, spinach and lettuce
- Vegetables like carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, bell peppers etc.
- Fruits like berries, apples, pineapples etc.
- Legumes like black beans, peas, lentils etc.
- Whole grains like oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat etc.
Here are a few recipes to give you an idea of how to incorporate healthy carbohydrates into your meals.
https://dailydinnertable.com/2012/06/22/spinach-rice-salad/amp/ (I substitute sugar for a sweetener like xylitol in this recipe)