In the world of nutrition, carbohydrates are a constant source of controversy. Fat used to be the major enemy but it has since been proven that some fats are actually beneficial for us, so what about carbs?
The new Eatwell Guide recommends that a balanced diet needs to include more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, so why are carbs are still considered a foe?
What are carbs and why do we need them?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients found in our food, the other two being fat and protein. They are a source of energy, with one carb providing four calories for every gram and they can be found in almost every food.
There are three types of carbs:
- Sugars: naturally occurring sugar can be found in fruit, milk (as lactose) and some vegetables
- Starches: starch is found in grains, potatoes and products like bread, cereals, pasta or rice. Starch provides a slow release of energy throughout the day
- Fibre: found only in plants. Eating fibre is important for our digestive health and even lowers the risk of diabetes or heart disease.You can find it in root vegetables such as carrots or sweet potatoes, whole grain bread or pasta, fruit like bananas or apples,legumes (beans, lentils).
As mentioned previously, carbohydrates are an important component of our nutritional plan. They are the main source of the body’s energy, fuelling our physical activities. Since carbs have less calories per gram than fat, they can be a good aid in weight loss. “As a general rule a portion about the size of your fist is an appropriate mealtime portion of carbohydrate. This can then be adjusted depending on your activity levels”, recommends Louise Coyle, Consultant Dietician at BMI The Alexandra Hospital.
What kind of carbs are there?
Not all carbs are equal because they have a different chemical reaction in your body. There are two major categories of carbs: simple and complex.
Sugars are considered simple carbohydrates. Sugars contain one or two building blocks, such as glucose, fructose or galactose, and are easy to break down. As a simple rule to identify them, anything that tastes sweet will contain simple carbs, even fruit. Processed foods are high in such simple carbohydrates, which is why it’s recommended to avoid them. One of 2016’s popular diets is the ‘no sugar’ diet. “The no sugar diet involves cutting down on free sugars, reducing the amount of sugar you add, and consuming fewer products already containing added sugar; this is definitely positive and will aid weight loss. However some versions of the no sugar/sugar-free diet promote cutting out all sugars in the diet which is almost impossible and would mean eliminating foods like vegetables, fruit and dairy products as well as other foods, making it a less healthy option”, explains our consultant dietician Louise Coyle.
Complex carbs are either starch or fibre. Since one carbohydrate is made out of longer chains of building blocks it takes longer to break down, making us feel fuller for a longer time.
Do you need to cut out carbs to lose weight?
One of the main reasons carbs have been so controversial is due to the number of diets that promote low-carb eating. However, it is quite difficult to cut all carbs from your diet. The necessary daily intake varies from one individual to another and it’s influenced by factors like age, gender, how physically active you are, food culture, metabolism, and more.
The principle of how carbs contribute to weight loss is rather simple: without carbs, the body will start getting its energy from protein and fat. This means that you will start burning fat, but there is also a chance you will eventually lose lean muscle mass.
“However, drastically cutting carbohydrates means your body will miss out on the nutritional benefits of healthy food choices like whole-grains, fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes. We need the carbohydrate these foods provide us for several reasons, including fuel to provide us with energy and optimal brain function. Carbohydrate food contains vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and magnesium. Strictly avoiding them puts you at risk of vitamin and mineral deficiency”, says Ms Coyle. Also, not getting enough fibre can lead to constipation and issues with digestive health. 
In a low-carb diet you would get about 40% of your calories from carbs, which will often lead to rapid successful results. BMI Healthcare’s Consultant Dietician recommends: “Some weight loss tips to get you started would be to keep a diary and stay more aware of habits and problem areas. Plan your meals and eat regularly. Pay attention to portion sizes and total calories you are eating in a day. Enjoy a healthy diet that includes carbohydrate rich foods like vegetables and fruit that are low in calories but high in fibre and nutrients. Weigh yourself weekly and aim for slow steady weight loss of 1-2 pounds per week. Get moving and be physically active. Expect challenges, as weight loss is a process, it takes time, patience and effort.”
For valuable advice about a healthy, balanced diet, insights on your food consumption or any questions regarding nutrition you might have, you can arrange a dietary consultation with BMI Healthcare. They also have a range of different health assessment checks you can have carried out, to inform you of any health issues you may be unaware of.