Over the years, carbohydrates appear to have unfairly earned themselves a bad reputation.
But, what are carbs and why do we need them?
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They are required 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. Without them, your body struggles to function properly and you can end up feeling fatigued in their absence.
A recent BBC show, ‘The Truth About Carbs’ divided them into 3 different categories:
+ Sugar (white carbs) – found in sugary foods such as fizzy drinks, sweets as well as processed and refined foods including cakes and biscuits
+ Starch (beige carbs) - bread, pasta, potatoes and rice
+ Fibre (green carbs) - found in high-fibre foods such as lentils, beans and unprocessed whole grains.
The show fuelled the anti-carb campaign by stating that ‘beige’ (starchy) carbs are causing the UK to become the fattest Western nation. The show went on to claim that instances of type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer are on the rise, and carbs should essentially be held responsible.
Whilst the show was informative in certain respects, it is vital to take away the correct information and avoid being taken in by some of the shock tactics used, which may have caused some confusion for the audience.
The real issue
The show used shock tactics to blame carbohydrates for many of the health problems faced today in the Western World, but can carbohydrates really be blamed for the obesity epidemic?
The straight answer is no.
Carbohydrates consumed are metabolised into glucose. Excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen and can be quickly converted back into glucose in times of need. However, we are unable to store large amounts. The show supports the ‘insulin hypothesis’ which suggests that increased consumption of carbs leads to proportional increases in insulin levels, in turn leading to more fat storage, decreased fatty acid breakdown and consequently increased body fat.
However, over the years, research has shown abnormalities across populations to oppose this hypothesis as certain populations who have naturally high carb diets, do not have the expected increased rates of obesity.
Therefore, to state that carbs are the sole cause of the obesity epidemic is a generalisation of a much larger problem.
It’s not the carbs, but the excess calories we consume each day which lead to undesired weight gain. Food is readily available nowadays and many of us tend to have sedentary daily routines, with demanding jobs which not only reduce the number of hours available to exercise, but also the motivation to do so. The combination of poor dietary choices and insufficient physical activity is to blame for the problems the population is up against.
So, should we avoid them?
No, we simply need to become more carb-savvy. As it is, we’re eating too much of the wrong types of carbs. The heavily processed and refined carb heavy foods, are calorie dense. These are usually packed with salt and other additives which make them easy to overeat, often taking us over our recommended daily calorie intake, contributing towards obesity and the deteriorating health of the population.
In terms of weight loss, cutting out carbs may help you lose weight short-term, but it is likely to be mostly water-weight because when you eat them you store more glycogen. For every gram of glycogen you store 3-4 grams of water.
If weight loss is your goal, you need to be in an overall calorie deficit, meaning you will need to be burning more calories than you are consuming.
At FFF, we love carbs! They taste pretty damn good and can take a meal from ordinary to extraordinary.
Georgia Head, FFF Nutritionist