Everybody is always hating on carbs, drumming up fear and animosity towards a simple macronutrient. Like it’s the reason you don’t fit in those old jeans you’ve still got hiding in the back of your draw. Just blame it on the carbs and carry on.
Reeling from a wonderful trip in Italy, eating all of the pasta, I wanted to pen something in defence of carbohydrates.
What are carbohydrates and why are they important?
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient – the other two being protein and fat – and, like protein, are made up of four calories per gram; fat is nine.
Carbs are useful in various ways within the body, from feeding the brain and central nervous system, to helping you lift heavier things up and run faster.
Carbohydrates are not essential, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include them in your diet – it just means you probably won’t die if you go a few days without any. The amount you need to consume will vary based on bodyweight, training volume, training type, goals and environment. You have to decide what you want from your body.
Required intake of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight
For performance: 3-10g
For fat loss: 1-3g
For muscle gain: 2-6g
For health: 1-4g
In terms of health, some carbohydrates are better than others. Limiting monosaccharides, often referred to as simple carbs, can aid weight loss and overall health. This is: glucose, fructose, galactose; and also maltose, lactose and sucrose. This is things like sweets, soda, artificial syrups, pastries, white rice, white bread, sugar etc.
Polysaccharides, aka complex carbs, are complex chains of linked monosaccharides. These include cellulose, starch and glycogen. These generally have slower digestion in the body. These are the carbs that you want to include in your diet.
Essentially if you eat less chocolate and pastries and more vegetables and legumes, you’ll be on the right track.
How important is fibre?
Fibre is important in maintaining bowel health, controlling blood sugar levels and adding low energy density volume to the diet – and it comes from plants. The average Briton doesn’t even eat half of the recommended daily dose of fibre.
You can increase fibre intake by: consuming fortified milks/cereals, switching to whole grains (i.e. brown rice, bulgur wheat, whole grain bread etc), eating more legumes, snacking on fruit and veg.
It’s important to note that if you have gut issues, like IBS or celiacs, you need to be careful with fibre as it could cause you problems.
Adding too much fibre too quickly can result in abdominal bloating, gas and cramping. Try to increase fibre gradually over a few weeks so as not to stink the office out.
Carbohydrates and heart disease
Research has shown that cereal grains and legumes can protect against heart disease and stroke, while high GI carbohydrate intakes in large amounts can increase the risk . The 2006 meta-analysis by Flight and Clifton found that “grains made up more than 56% of the energy and 50% of the protein consumed by humans worldwide”. They said despite these figures, most adults do not have enough in their diets and concluded with the recommendation that: “Carbohydrate-rich foods should be wholegrain and if they are not, then the lowest GI product available should be consumed.”
They also noted that: “Glycaemic index is largely irrelevant for foods that contain small amounts of carbohydrate per serve (such as most vegetables).”
Carbohydrates and optimal health
The thing is, we’ve decided as a society that carbohydrates are evil and the source of all our dietary woes. This has allowed cult diets to pop up encouraging the elimination of carbohydrates completely. This was in part a response to the backlash against fat, and has resulted in some real extreme diet ideas.
Yes, we eat a lot of unhealthy carbohydrate foods, such as the cakes and the pastries and high-calorie highly-processed meals that are cheap and readily available. But the reason obesity is on the rise in the UK isn’t because we eat carbs – it’s because we eat too much. That’s too much everything. Too much food in total. People don’t like counting calories and have ended up in a place where most people have no idea how much they’re actually eating. This means people will easily consume hundreds, if not thousands, more calories a day than they need. Simply reading and understanding food labels could make making smarter food choices much easier.
We don’t have a carbohydrate problem, we have an education problem. Most people just don’t really know what’s in their food and what the effect of that will be on their body. I remember the first time I measured out a tablespoon of olive oil for my food and realised it was 119 calories. I come from a Cypriot background where I was easily dashing 5-600 extra calories on top of everything I ate without realising. This is a story I share a lot because I know I am not the only one who did this. People need to stop spending so much time blindly following whatever the next big trend is and take a step back to look at the bigger picture.
And if that means you get to eat some pasta sometimes without hating yourself for it, all the better.
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 Association of Official Analytical Chemists (2015) – Brits eat fewer than 15g/day of fibre.  2015 guidelines – dietary fibre target is 30g/day.
 Cereal grains and legumes in the prevention of coronary heart disease and stroke: a review of the literature (2006)
Photo credit: Jorge Zapata