Do you need to cut carbohydrates out of your diet to be healthy?
Carbohydrates have received a pretty bad rep over the years. They are often the first things which are shunned at the start of a diet overhaul. This is often regardless of whether your goal is to lose weight or to simply eat a little ‘better’.
A quick online review confirms this, as after searching for the word carbohydrates, follow-up searches include:
- Do carbs make you lose belly fat?
- How much weight can you lose in 3 days without carbs?
- Can you eat carbs and lose weight?
- Are carbs healthy?
Trends such as the keto diet and very low-carb diets for fat loss have only exacerbated the uncertainty around carbohydrate intake.
Is this valid and do you need to cut them out of your diet in order to be healthy? In short, no. We’re here to help show you why.
What are carbohydrates?
Firstly, what are carbohydrates? To take things all the way back, calorie intake is typically broken down into what are known as macronutrients. ‘Macro’ because they are required in large quantities by the body.
There are three main macronutrients:
Carbohydrates are sugars that are metabolised into glucose. There are two primary forms:
- ‘Simple’ carbohydrates: are those which are metabolised quickly, releasing glucose into the bloodstream rapidly. This causes a quick rise in blood sugar levels. They are found in processed and refined sugars such as table sugar and syrups.
- ‘Complex’ carbohydrates: are carbohydrates that are digested at a slower rate, and have less of an immediate effect on blood sugar levels. They provide us with a prolonged, steady energy release and are known as complex carbohydrates. They include quinoa, brown rice, sweet potato and whole-grain bread.
Our bodies perform at their best when blood sugar levels are kept relatively constant. Therefore, it’s important to understand the effect that different carbohydrates can have.
Why do we need them?
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They are needed for brain and organ function, as well as physical activity. They also play a role in the structure and function of cells, tissues and organs.
What are the consequences of not having enough?
While some diets and trends may suggest eliminating complete food groups, it’s generally not advisable to eliminate carbohydrates entirely. Here’s why:
- Energy Source: As noted, carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. Without enough carbohydrates, you may experience fatigue, weakness, and difficulty concentrating.
- Brain Function: Glucose from carbohydrates is especially important for the brain, as it’s the brain’s primary source of energy. Insufficient intake can impair cognitive function and memory.
- Exercise Performance: They provide readily available energy for workouts, improve endurance, and support muscle recovery. Inadequate intake can lead to decreased performance and that feeling of ‘hitting a wall’. This is definitely not what you want mid-workout!
- Balanced Nutrition: A well-rounded diet includes a variety of nutrients from different food groups, including carbohydrates. Restricting entire food groups can lead to nutrient deficiencies and imbalances in the diet.
- Fibre Content: Many carbohydrate-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are excellent sources of dietary fibre. Fibre aids digestion, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and supports heart health. Eliminating these foods can lead to digestive issues and an increased risk of some chronic diseases.
- Long-Term Sustainability: Diets that eliminate entire food groups, including carbohydrates, can be challenging to maintain in the long run. Restrictive diets can lead to cravings, binge eating, and ultimately, weight regain once normal eating patterns resume.
Do we need to avoid carbs in order to be healthy?
No, you do not need to avoid carbohydrates in order to be healthy. Yes, you read that correctly!
As with most things, it often comes down to making appropriate choices. It is often best to prioritise complex over simple carbs, but even simple carbs have their place. I for one am extremely partial to jelly babies on longer runs!
Avoiding carbohydrates doesn’t necessarily mean you’re eating more healthily. Low carbohydrate diets, just like high carbohydrate diets, can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on the types of food we are consuming.
We are all unique and require different dietary approaches. Therefore, our individual macronutrient requirements can vary. What works for one, may not be suitable for another. However, here at FFF, we would rarely advocate dramatically reducing any of the three macronutrients, as they each play important roles in overall health. Moreover, we would never tell you to remove a full food group from your diet.
Everything can be enjoyed in moderation!