Ahhh, the great carbohydrate debate; it may be an old one but as I am increasingly finding out, we, the British public, just cannot get enough of it.
The other day I spent time with a bank in central London, providing general healthy eating education and practical tips. As my display table creaked under visual displays and hand-outs, I became increasingly aware that those who stopped by were fairly surprised to see that, firstly, I was advising that every meal should contain some form of carbohydrate and secondly, that I advocated ½ a wholemeal bagel with some low fat cream cheese or a small slice of malt loaf with a teaspoon of wholenut peanut butter as excellent snack suggestions. “Carbohydrates make you fat though don’t they?” I was asked. “No”, I responded (I will mention at this point however that my carbohydrate munching suggestions do not come without rules but I will hold off on these for the moment).
These city workers are not alone in their thoughts. The majority of my clients, friends and family are also suffering with what I am diagnosing as ‘carbohydrate confusion’. So I have come to the conclusion therefore that the majority of us feel that carbohydrates are the devil food. Forget chocolate, crisps and fizzy pop, it is that pasta salad that really is Satan.
Here’s the thing, regardless of what Mr Atkins might say: when eaten correctly, carbohydrates really aren’t bad for us and I wish to use this blog to argue in their defence. Well someone has to!
In order to do that, and without wishing to give the illusion that you are back in summer school, allow me to run through a few key carbohydrate facts.
1. ‘Carbohydrate’ is a collective term used to describe sugars (i.e. table sugar), starch (i.e. wheat) and fibre (i.e. the indigestible part of wheat).
2. Aside from fibre, ALL carbohydrates are broken down to glucose, which then enters our bloodstream. When this happens our bodies release a hormone called insulin that allows the glucose to enter our cells, providing us with energy.
3. Importantly, glucose is the main fuel that the brain can use i.e. no glucose in the bloodstream means no glucose going to the brain. You don’t need me to tell you that that may not be wise!
4. Excess glucose not needed by the body is stored in our liver and muscles as glycogen and in turn glycogen holds onto a lot of water (NB: key point)
5. Sadly, in terms of their effects on our bodies, carbohydrates were not made equal. (NB: another key point)
If we cut out carbohydrates, our bodies firstly use our glycogen stores to provide the body with glucose. The release of glycogen means the release of water and so that initial weight loss seen with low carbohydrate diets is in fact water loss not fat loss.
Once our glycogen stores have been depleted then yes, we will start to burn our fat and muscle for energy. However, do you know how hard it is to live a life completely ‘carb free’? Pretty much everything bar protein and pure fat i.e. butter, oil etc. contains carbohydrates. Realistically are you ever going to live a life solely on these two food groups? If your answer is yes, then to be honest I feel a little sorry for you. And when you do start eating carbohydrates again, it will be a case of saying hello to the water and weight you lost.
Addressing the inequality issue
Here’s the deal: sugar and some starchy foods such as potatoes, white bread, white pasta and rice etc. are said to have a high glycaemic index (GI) i.e. they are broken down into glucose far quicker than other carbohydrates that have a low GI i.e. carbohydrates that contain the wholegrain such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, buckwheat noodles and oats. This means that high GI foods provide the body with a surge of glucose and consequently a surge of insulin, which encourages our bodies to go into ‘storage mode’ i.e. forming glycogen and fat. Not only that but this fast rise and fall in glucose levels plays havoc with our energy levels and our mood. Low GI or ‘slow glucose releasing carbohydrates’ on the other hand cause a much more controlled release of insulin, allowing our bodies to deal with the glucose load more effectively. The added bonus is that they contain fibre which makes us feel fuller for longer as well as many more nutrients that have a positive impact on our energy levels, mood and general wellbeing.
So yes there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ carbohydrates but make no mistake, if you gorge yourself on bowlfuls of brown rice or pasta or munch through plates of wholemeal sandwiches and don’t exercise like crazy to burn it off, then you will put on weight. The unappealing truth is that choosing the right kind of carbohydrates is half the battle but controlling your portion sizes is the other. Barring elite athletes, I am sorry to say that at each meal ‘good carbohydrates’ should still only fill up about ¼ of your plate. Please don’t shoot the messenger!
So, to conclude, here are my three key carbohydrate munching rules:
1. Eat carbohydrates at every meal.
2. Avoid ‘white’ carbohydrates that have a high GI i.e. sugar, white bread, white rice; opt instead for wholegrain varieties where possible, which have a low GI.
3. Watch those portion sizes!