The real truth about carbs

Ever since a physician called Robert C. Atkins came up with a no-carb diet, people have been blaming carbs for all their weight-loss problems and putting them in the naughty corner. But carbs aren’t as simple as ‘good’ or ‘bad’; there are so many different types of carbs and they’re not all created equal.

So we’re left asking ourselves, should we include carbohydrates in a healthy eating plan or stick with a low carb diet?

The quick answer is: yes, carbohydrates are an essential nutrient in your diet that provide the energy your brain and body need to function. The long answer is: not all carbohydrates are created equal, so it helps to know which carbs provide more nutrients than others.

The importance of carbs

Carbs are to our diet what petrol is to a car – a primary energy source. And the vitamins, minerals and fibre in carbohydrate-rich foods help keep us healthy. “Extreme diets that cut out all sorts of carbs only provide temporary weight loss and can cause unpleasant symptoms like headaches and tiredness,” says Weight Watchers nutrition adviser, Emma Stirling.

Your body breaks carbs down into simple sugars that it can use immediately, or store, as fuel. If your body isn’t receiving these carbs, it can start to break down your muscle tissue to get the fuel it needs from there instead!

It’s about balance

Some people try to steer clear of carbs fearing that a piece of bread or a jacket potato will go directly to their thighs. But it’s not carbs alone that pad the curves. Losing weight is all about the kilojoules. Eating more kilojoules than you need – whether they come from protein, carbohydrates or fat – results in your body converting the excess into fat.

It’s not only the nutrients found in carb rich foods that make them an important part of any healthy eating plan. The types of food you choose can affect your feelings of eating satisfaction and your ability to maintain your weight loss. Picking carbs in a way that’s right for you may make the difference between long-term weight-loss success and just following another diet.

Including the right carbs

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Some are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre and disease fight antioxidants. Others are packed with sugar and empty kilojoules – this means they contain few if any nutrients. And then other carbs fall somewhere in the middle.

The key to successfully implementing carbohydrates into a healthy eating plan is choosing the right ones. When planning a meal, think of carbs in terms of their nutrient density and the fibre the food provides. A couple of store bought biscuits, for example, may have the same kilojoules as a bowl of porridge, but the porridge will also provide a large nutritional payoff, whereas the biscuits have little nutritional density and won’t leave you feeling satisfied (meaning you’ll just eat more).

Quality carbs

Quality carbs include whole grains, whole foods and slow release foods.

  • Whole grains such as brown rice, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal or multigrain bread, rolled oats, and high-fibre breakfast cereals are minimally processed and provide many essential nutrients as well as carbs. For example, they are rich in fibre, which aids in healthy digestion. Plus, they fill you up more than their highly processed counterparts.
  • Slow-release foods such as Basmati and Doongara rice and pasta are carbohydrate-rich foods with a low Glycemic Index (GI). Because the energy from them is released into your bloodstream slowly, you’ll feel fuller for longer and will have an easier time managing your hunger.

Other quality carbs include:

  • Starchy vegetables such as beans, carrots, corn, and jacket potatoes and fruits such as peaches, apples, berries, and melons. All are rich in nutrients that reinforce a healthy diet.
  • Low-fat dairy products, including skim milk and skim or low-fat yoghurt which are rich in bone-building calcium.

Carbs to look out for

Carbs to watch include sweets, cakes and savoury snacks.

  • Sweets and snack foods such as cookies, cakes, ice-cream, chocolate, chips, French fries and flavoured crackers are very concentrated sources of processed sugars and fat. These foods, along with jams and jellies, honey, table sugar, and soft drinks, provide a lot of kilojoules with hardly any nutrients. What they do deliver is a high level of eating pleasure. Sometimes, just a small amount can be enough to satisfy the need for an indulgence.

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