Are Carbohydrates bad for you?
Are Carbohydrates bad for you?

Are carbs bad for you?

First up, no one food should be demonised as “bad” for you. White carbohydrates, brown carbohydrates, fried carbohydrates or no carbohydrates – either way, they can all play a part in a healthy diet.

Carbohydrates can vary in their offering, with many whole foods that are high in carbs being incredibly healthy and nutritious. Often people can be quick to cut out carbs, but actually, a few swaps and simple adjustments with your carbohydrate intake can make a significant difference, of course, depending on your health goals.

Read on to find out all you need to know about CARBS.

SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATES

Simple carbohydrates are primarily composed of easy-to-digest sugars, and depending on the food, some of these sugars are naturally occuring, others are added. These simple carbohydrates are quickly absorbed through the gut, converted into glucose and can cause a spike in our blood sugar levels.

However, not all foods that incorporate simple carbohydrates are “bad”, it really depends on the food. For example, dairy products and fruit contain simple carbohydrates, yet the nutritional value of these foods are very different to other sources of simple carbs such as cookies and baked goods. Highly processed foods tend to contain high levels of refined sugar and are lacking in nutrients, vitamins and minerals. 

COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES

Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, fruit, vegetables and legumes and contain longer chains of sugar molecules and more fibre, a type of carbohydrate that is poorly digested/absorbed (a good thing!). These fibres can not only feed the good gut bacteria living in our guts but fibre can also help to slow the absorption of carbohydrates and therefore blood sugar elevations.

There are two main complex carbohydrate groups – starch and fibre.

Fibre is the more nutritious type of carb, but you will also require some starchy foods in your diet to get energy. Although fibre and starch are both complex carbs, they act very differently inside the body. 

If you require a quick energy-filled snack, reaching for starchy food may be the best option. But, if you are looking for something to fill you up for longer, a high fibre snack may be more substantial. Starch is digested well, whereas fibre is not- meaning fibre can help slow down the digestion process allowing food to slowly break down and not turn into sugar as quickly. 

Foods containing complex carbohydrates tend to also include more vitamins and minerals as below: 

 White rice    Brown rice  
Niacin9%16%
Vitamin B65%7%
Magnesium 3%9%

Complex carbs include foods such as:

  • Whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, oats and wholegrain barley 
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and corn
  • Beans and legumes such as lentils, beans and chickpeas
  • Fruits and vegetables

SHOULD I CUT OUT CARBOHYDRATES TO LOSE WEIGHT? 

Cutting out carbs is not the golden rule for healthy weight loss. Actually, quite the opposite. Incorporating carbohydrates into your diet may mean you are less likely to gain weight!

One of the reasons people feel that they lose weight when they cut out carbs is down to water retention. When we consume carbs, our body actually holds onto water weight. Thus, when we cut out carbohydrates, we also lose this water retention, which can take numbers off the scale, and also make people feel less “puffy”.

Low-carb dieters may find that they don’t actually lose weight, thanks to the fact that on a low carb diet, people may end up eating more fat and fewer fruits and vegetables. 

Healthy, whole grain, complex carbohydrates are loaded with fibre, helping you feel full and satiated so you are less likely to overeat. In addition to this, if healthy weight loss or weight maintenance is your goal, exercise has an important role to play as part of a healthy lifestyle. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel for exercise, helping your body cope with cardio and endurance exercise for longer. Refuelling depleted glycogen stores post-workout is equally as important to help you recover and perform better for your next workout- reach for options such as oats, sweet potato and brown rice. 

Some tips for incorporating carbohydrates into your weight-loss goals below:

  • Eat as close to nature as possible: opting for a baked sweet potato over sweet potato fries, or a whole apple over your apple juice will help you ensure you are consuming healthy carbohydrates over refined ones- leaving you feeling energized and well-fueled 
  • Reach for “whole”- Aim to consume whole grains as they are packed full of nutrients and fibre 
  • Be mindful of portions- Aim for ¼ of your plate to be whole-grain carbohydrates
  • Pack in the fruit and veggies- Enjoy as many vegetables and fruit as you like, as these are super high in vitamins, minerals and fibre, helping you to avoid overeating. 

SHOULD I FOLLOW A GRAIN-FREE DIET?

Grains are a staple food group in most traditional diets, but there has been a recent trend to move towards grain-free diets. This may be down to allergies or intolerances to the grains themselves, whilst others chose a grain-free diet for weight loss purposes or to improve their health.

A grain-free diet eliminates all grains, as well as foods derived from them. Including gluten-containing grains such as barley, rye, wheat, spelt and triticale, as well as non-gluten containing grains like millet, rice, oats and dried corn. 

Most grain-free diets do allow small volumes of pseudocereals such as quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat. A grain-free diet is usually naturally low-carb, but this isn’t a requirement. Carbohydrates can come from fruits, legumes, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, squash etc. 

A grain-free diet may benefit individuals suffering from certain inflammatory conditions such as fibromyalgia. However, it can also increase your risk of constipation and may limit your nutrient intake due to the lack of fibre. 

Removing grains from some individuals’ diets may encourage them to naturally increase their intake and variety of fresh fruit and vegetables they consume, both of which have been shown to help reduce inflammation. (1) 

A grain-free diet has also been shown to help with insulin resistance in individuals suffering from type-2 diabetes. (2) 

Insulin resistance manifests itself as ‘carbohydrate intolerance. When dietary carbohydrates are restricted to a level below which it is not significantly converted to fat, signs and symptoms of insulin resistance improve or often disappear completely. (3) 

Sometimes swaps can be beneficial. For example, swapping out refined flours for ground almonds, which is lower in carbs but is also more nutrient-dense. Almond flour may also provide more health benefits such as reducing bad “LDL” cholesterol and insulin resistance. (4) Almond flour is high in Vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant in the body, preventing damage from harmful free radicals, which speeds up the ageing process and can increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. (5) 

For a delicious almond flour recipe check out Clarissa’s Grain Free and Paleo Tahini Swirl Brownies.

Foods made from refined, white flours are higher in carbs but usually lower in fat and fibre which can result in blood sugar spikes and drops, leaving you feeling tired, hungry and craving high sugar foods. Almond flour is low in carbs, and high in healthy fats and fibre, giving it a low glycemic index, which will provide a more sustained source of energy.  

Overall, almond flour may be a more nutritious, grain-free choice, but does not need to be your choice every time. In addition, there are many grain free complex carbohydrates you can consume such as sweet potato, carrots and fruit. 

However, if an individual is gluten intolerant or suffers from conditions such as coeliac, avoiding gluten is essential, but reducing grains may also help. It is important to always work with a registered Nutritionist when cutting certain food groups out of your diet to ensure you are doing it in the safest way possible, without missing out on essential nutrients. 

THE CARBOHYDRATE TAKE AWAY 

A diet with variety and balance is one of the best ways to nutritionally support your health, and complex carbohydrates can definitely be a part of it! If weight loss is your goal, instead of eliminating a food group, work to look at your overall intake, portion sizes and movement.

FIVE REASONS TO CONSUME COMPLEX CARBS

  • THINK CLEARER– Your brain needs carbs to function! Your brain runs on glucose, and we get glucose from carbohydrates. If you’re lacking in carbohydrates, your ability to think and learn may be impacted, due to the fact the neurotransmitters in your brain will not have enough glucose to synthesize properly.
  • REDUCE BLOATING Complex carbs are full of my favourite F word- fibre! Fibre helps to keep bowel movements regular, helping to get rid of waste more efficiently. This will result in less bloating and gas, whilst also helping to prevent constipation. Many individuals who follow low-carbohydrate diets suffer from constipation, due to the lack of fibre they are getting in their diets.
  • IMPROVE MOOD–  Many carbs contain tryptophan, which helps to produce serotonin, our happy hormone. Not having enough tryptophan can lead to poor sleep and lower mood, being linked to depression. Try oats, whole grain bread and fruits to get a natural mood booster.
  • ENERGY–  Due to the glucose content in carbs, they are your body’s main source of energy. Protein and fat also contribute to this energy, but carbohydrates are the number one choice. Aim for ¼ of your plate to be complex carbs at each meal.
  • THEY ARE DELICIOUS– If you remove anything from your diet, you’ll be more inclined to overeat it later on. Don’t deprive yourself of carbohydrates, especially when they are so important for so many bodily functions as well as mood, and general feelings of happiness and wellbeing. When opting for carbs, reach for the more nutritious ones, such as chickpeas, lentils, quinoa, brown rice, squash, sweet potato, vegetables and fruits. But, of course, it’s okay to enjoy your favourite pizza every so often too!

References: 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28616763/  (1)

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15767618/  (2)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3826507/ (3)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4116579/ (4)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/ (5)

Please note, Clarissa Lenherr Nutrition Limited uses affiliate links. If you buy something using these links, we may earn an affiliate commission, at no additional cost to you.

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I’m Clarissa, a registered nutritionist (mBANT) and workplace wellness expert. In my practice, I have helped hundreds of clients reach optimal health through creating sustainable, effective habits and dietary adjustments. My aim is to empower people with the skills, tools and knowledge to take their health into their own hands and feel the happiest, healthiest versions of themselves. Featured in The Daily Mail, Women’s Health, The Telegraph, and more.

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