Myth Busting - Carbohydrates

Myth busting. This is one of my favourite parts of the job. Education is SO important when it comes to healthy living. I will be doing myth busting at least once a week and offering you lots of juicy information and facts that you can use and share far and wide :)

First up, we have my favourite macronutrient. Carbohydrates.

"Carbohydrates are why I have gained weight"

"Carbs will make me fat"

"I want to avoid carbs to stay lean and healthy"

"carbs are bad" 

"I might treat myself to some carbs tonight"

Heard or said these before? Me too. 

Poor carbs, they really do have a hard time. This could possibly be due to popular 'no carb' diets such as Atkins, South Beach and Duken. Not only that but possibly from TV programmes, films, newspaper articles and so on. Before we get in to myth busting properly lets look at what carbohydrates are...

What are carbs?

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (nutrients that form a large part of our diet) found in food. The other two are fat and protein. It's advised that for the general public between 50-55% of our daily diet should be made up of carbohydrates.

Hardly any foods contain only one macronutrient, most are a combination of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in varying amounts.

There are three different types of carbohydrates found in food according to the NHS Live Well website:

1. Sugar is found naturally in some foods, including fruit, honey, fruit juices, milk (known as lactose) and vegetables

2. Starch is made up of many sugar units bonded together. It is found in foods that come from plants. Starchy foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta, provide a slow and steady release of energy throughout the day.

3. Fibre is the name given to the range of compounds found in the cell walls of foods that come from plants. Good sources of fibre include vegetables with skins on, wholegrain bread, wholewheat pasta and beans and lentils.

Why do we need carbs? 

They are an essential nutrient (meaning your body cannot create them on its own and they are needed in order for your body to function properly), their main purpose is to provide our bodies with energy. Also research tells us that muscle and brain cells predominantly and almost exclusively use glucose which comes from carbohydrates. 

In addition (and not something 'no carbs diet' companies have been that clear on!), vegetables, pulses, wholegrain varieties of starchy foods, and potatoes eaten with their skins on are really good sources of the carbohydrate fibre. Fibre is an important part of a healthy balanced diet. It can promote good bowel health, reduce the risk of constipation, and some forms of fibre have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. Research also shows diets that are high in fibre are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. 

Why do people who cut out carbs lose weight?

Well this most likely due to them reducing their daily calorie intake, not because they have cut out carbs. Also a diet high in protein and fat has high satiety (meaning you feel full). Diets that suggest the cutting of carbs. claim that, in doing so, your body will eventually use protein and fat as fuel/energy instead, whilst this is true, it doesn't means it's good for you. The serious risk here is hard to make up for the nutrient shortfall which could lead to a nutrient deficiency...and we do not want those!

On average, most people in the UK get about 18g of fibre a day. We are advised to eat an average of 30g a day.
— NHS.UK

So if its not the cutting of carbs that makes us lose weight, how does weight loss work?

I'll be digging deeper into this topic soon in a separate blog post but here's a quick overview. It's pretty simple really. If you do want to lose weight you need to consider your energy balance, this is what energy (calories) you consume compared to the calories you burn. Thanks to the British Heart Foundation, the diagram below illustrates this nicely. If the amount of calories you consume is less than you burn, you will lose weight. However, if you eat more carbs (or any macronutrient for that matter) than your body needs, your body will store it as fat and you will put on weight.

According to the British Heart Foundation who commissioned a poll with Diabetes UK and Tesco last year, found that two thirds of people aren't aware of how many calories they could be consuming a day (FYI its roughly 2500 for men and 2000 for women). So if you are unsure about calories and how many you need, you're not alone. If would like any further help with calories or advice on weight loss please get in touch.

Carbohydrate contained in food, isn’t directly ‘fattening’. For example pasta will not make you gain weight, however eating five times more than you need smothered in a creamy sauce will contribute to weight gain.
— BDA (British Dietician Association)

To sum up. We have discussed that eating a balanced amount of carbohydrates, roughly 50-55% of your daily intake, alone won't make you put on weight.  We have looked at the different types of carbohydrates and the health benefits that come from wholegrains, veg and pulses such as fiber. We have also touched on energy balance and what is needed to happen in order to lose weight, regardless of whether you eat carbs. or not.

Finally, science shows us that the glucose produced from carbohydrates powers muscle and brain cells almost exclusively. So the advice is pretty conclusive. You don't cut out carbohydrates from your diet to lose weight or be healthy, in fact its much healthier to included them in your diet.

If you do decide to cut out carbohydrates from your diet its definitely worth speaking with a registered nutritionist, registered dietician or health care professional first.  

See you soon for more myth busting fun :)