Are all carbs the enemy?

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
  • Sweets
  • 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.




Brown Rice: (I substitute sugar for a sweetener like xylitol in this recipe)


Buckwheat Ideas


Could your goals be setting you up for failure?

I think it’s safe to say that most of us think we know all about goal setting. I mean, chances are, no matter where we are in life, we are all busy working towards various short- and long-term goals at the moment. Whether you’re planning for an exciting holiday, working towards getting a promotion, or saving for retirement your goals become an important map by which you live your life. If you are genuinely working towards achieving a goal it will influence your day to day decisions.

It is no different with your weight-loss goals. Interestingly I have noticed that many people are willing to identify a clear target weight and work towards that goal in the short-term while far fewer people take the long view on their weight-loss goals. But if you want to maintain a healthy weight throughout your lifetime it may be time that you rethink the way you set your goals, and how you define your successes.

Behavioural goals versus outcome-based goals

First let me explain the difference between these two ways of thinking.

An outcome-based goal means that you focus mainly on the final result.

The process of how you reach the goal is far less important. An example of an outcome-based goal is deciding to lose 5kgs for a friend’s upcoming wedding. If this is your goal it doesn’t matter how you reach it. You will have succeeded as long as you are 5kgs lighter on the day. In this view what happens before and after you reach your goal is less important than getting there. This means that if you have to enroll for an extreme diet challenge you willingly make the drastic changes required for the next few months. It also means that if you pick up all the weight again a few months later it doesn’t take away from the fact that you reached your goal.

A behavioural goal means that you focus on the behaviours you want to make an ongoing part of your life.

Behavioural goals are, not surprisingly, focussed on the behaviours that you have to make part of your life if you want to succeed. When you set your goals this way you set yourself up for success. These goals are more reachable and more focussed on the long-term plan. In the above example you wouldn’t use the 5kgs as a yardstick to measure your success or failure, but instead you would focus on the steps that will help you lose the weight and keep it off. Instead of being fixated on the numbers on the scale you would focus on making healthier choices and the numbers on the scale would go down as a by-product of that. A good example of a behavioural goal is increasing the amount of times you exercise a week from twice to four times. Eating 80% of your meals in a more mindful way that allows you to stop when you are full is another good example of a behavioural goal.

By achieving your behavioural goals you will notice yourself moving towards the outcome-based goal of losing 5kgs anyway. The difference is that you will be doing it in a sustainable way that allows you to celebrate your achievements every step of the way. Before you know it you will have taught yourself that you are strong enough to reach your goals, creating a solid foundation for future success.


So how do I identify my own personal behavioural goals?

Let’s say you do want to lose 5kgs… perhaps you could find a different way to look at this? Maybe your long-term goal should be more about achieving and maintaining a healthy body that will allow you to enjoy a full and active life from now on. Although this is a slightly different goal it makes provision for the rest of your life in a realistic way. Now let’s look at how you would practically achieve this.

Here are seven of my best tips to help you pursue your behavioural goals:


1. Set a realistic long-term goal

Don’t aim to lose 5kgs in 2 weeks, instead aim to achieve and maintain a healthy body fat percentage for your weight and age.


2. Break your long-term goal up into smaller achievable goals

For example decide to gradually increase the amount of exercise you are doing until you reach a level that challenges you, but that still feels good. Or start preparing some meals in advance to make sure you have a few nutritious choices easily available on busy days.


3. Be honest with yourself

Don’t tell yourself you can never eat pudding again if you have an insatiable sweet tooth! Instead focus on eating nutritious meals made from whole foods 80% of the time.


4. Update your goals

As you go through the process of achieving some goals you will grow in confidence and you could find that something that was previously quite daunting has become routine. Now it’s time to identify new challenges that will get you closer to your long-term goal.


5. Plan for success but be flexible

Although this might seem like a contradiction it isn’t. If you want to achieve something big you need to spend some time planning towards it. Plotting out your meal choices for the week ahead of time can be very helpful. But you have to be careful not to be thrown completely if something suddenly comes up. For example if your boss suddenly lets you know you have to attend a work dinner, it doesn’t mean you are doomed to eating unhealthy food. Take a few minutes to read the menu carefully and I’m sure you will find a good alternative to your planned meal.


6. Celebrate your wins

Don’t dwell on any slip-ups along the way. Choose instead to focus on every time you achieved one of your goals against the odds. Pat yourself on the back when you resist hitting the snooze button and leave the comfort of your bed to get out and do some exercise. You are amazing and you deserve to know it, so keep reminding yourself just how incredible you are. If you keep this up you will notice that making the healthier choice will start to come more naturally. It all starts with believing that you are capable of making that choice. Remember a good goal should be challenging, not virtually impossible.


7. Don’t go it alone

It can be hard consistently making good choices when no-one knows why you’re doing it, or even that you are in fact busy doing it! Once you share your goals with someone else you are much more likely to stick to them and make them a priority. The right person can help encourage you along the way and can help you find the strength within yourself that you didn’t know you had.

If you would like some help setting goals that are right for you or guidance as you go through the process of living out your goals, why don’t you get in touch? I would love to help you become your healthiest self!