Not all carbs are created equal

Many people demonise carbs and try to “cut them out” from their diets. Recent trends lean towards the thought that eliminating carbohydrates may help with healthy eating or weight loss. But is this really the truth? Do carbohydrates really contribute to weight gain or is it down to other factors.

Foods contain three types of carbohydrate; fibre, starch and sugar. Carbohydrates fall into two categories, simple or complex. Sugars are simple carbohydrates as they have the most basic chemical structure (shorter chains of molecules). They break down fast and are quicker to digest by the body to be used for energy. Simple carbohydrates produce a spike in blood glucose which provides the body with a short term source of energy.

Complex carbohydrates contain three or more sugar molecules and it takes a lot longer for the body to break them down providing a more sustainable, longer-lasting source of energy.

When people say they are trying to eat healthy and “cut out carbs” from their diet they’re probably confused about carbohydrates in general! There is so much misinformation around carbohydrates, how they are linked to obesity, depression and brain fog. But carbohydrates are not just pasta and bread. We know that there are three main nutrients that sustain our body: protein (such as meat and fish), fats (oils, avocado, nuts, etc) and carbohydrates which are everything else!

So starches such as sweet potatoes, winter squash, pumpkin, carrots, beans, peas, oats and rice are also carbohydrates. Whole grains, brown rice, quinoa and barley are also carbs. They belong to the complex carbohydrates’ group. If your diet mostly consists of fruit and vegetables then it is generally OK that your diet is high in carbohydrates. For example, apples contain some simple carbohydrates but they also contain fibre which slows the simple carb digestion down reducing the blood sugar spike.

However, if your diet consists of processed foods such a biscuits, some baked goods, packaged breads etc. then a high carbohydrate diet could be much more harmful.

Eliminating all carbohydrates could also strip out lots of important nutrients from your diet. For example fibre is a type of carbohydrate which our body cannot break down so it passes through to the colon (large intestine). This helps ease constipation. Studies have shown that 77% of people with chronic constipation found relief after increasing their fibre consumption1. Fibre also helps to keep your blood sugar in check and supports weight management. Because the body is unable to break fibre down, it doesn’t cause a spike in blood glucose the way other carbohydrates can. This can help to keep your blood sugar within a healthy range.

Fibre feeds beneficial bacteria residing in your intestine, which help to eliminate toxins and other harmful bacteria from your gut. Because fibre cannot be digested, it moves slower through the stomach making you feel full for longer. This may also help with sustainable weight loss.

Not all carbohydrates sources are created equal. Refined carbohydrates can be harmful in high amounts and for example simple carbs found in less healthy foods such as highly processed snacks, sweets, refined grains, sugary soda drinks and sweetened juices are stripped of their natural fibre, many important vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients.

It is vitally important for people to understand that our bodies default source of fuel for everyday activity is carbohydrate. The brain and our blood cells rely on its existence for fuel.

Combining carbohydrates together with protein-rich sources may help to increase the amount of tryptophan in the brain which is then converted into serotonin2. So choosing the correct source of carbohydrates is as important as eating protein and good fats.

Anything can contribute to the weight gain if you eat too much of it and not all carbohydrate-rich foods have the same calorie density. Many people who eat lots of refined carbohydrates and sugar tend to lose weight when they reduce the consumption of these foods. But it is not because they cut out all the carbohydrates, it is because they reduced the a lot of the calorie dense products.

Research has found that low-carb eaters do loose more weight at first but after a period of a year the weight loss has levelled out and is typically no different to those who eat a low fat, moderate carb diet3. When you’re on a low carb diet the body becomes completely depleted of glycogen and excess water weight. Once you return to eating a more normal diet with some carbs this glycogen and water is restored. Many people mistake this weight as fat returning to the body when in reality it is not!

Magdalena Marvell is a Nutritional Practitioner and Founder of the Persea Clinic which helps support clients who want to optimise their health in areas such as gut health, hormonal balance, skin conditions, weight management, family nutrition. To find out more about her work please visit www.persea.clinic.

References

  1. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/apt.13662
  2. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6400041
  3. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699720