Do you run away from a bowl of rice? Or avoid pasta like the plague? Well, it’s not entirely your fault given that carbs have received such a bad reputation. Most diets, such as the Atkins or Paleo, applaud the benefits of cutting out carbs completely to burn fat. Some even eliminate vegetables and fruits due to the sugar content. There may be some truth in this, but questions remain: is it safe if I exclude carbs from my life entirely? Am I harming myself if I do? Most importantly, which of these dozens of pieces of carb advice should I listen to?
The Simplicity and Complexity of it
There are two forms of carbohydrates: simple and complex. The former consists of short chains of carbon molecules. These simple carbohydrates do not need to be broken down as much and enter the bloodstream directly, triggering a spike in blood sugar levels. Such simple carbs seldom have much nutritional value, examples of which include sugar, syrup, and refined grains (pasta, white flour and white bread).
Complex carbohydrates, which include whole grains and legumes, have longer chains of carbon molecules, therefore your body requires more time to break them down. In essence, there is a more steady absorption of sugar into our bloodstream, offering energy that lasts for an extended period of time.
It’s important to note that most foods contain both forms of carbs, so as hard as you might try, you cannot completely cut out carbs from your diet without seriously compromising your health.
Carbs in Your Body
The final product of the breakdown of carbohydrates is glucose. How does this breakdown happen? It all begins in our mouths; more specifically, our saliva, which contains enzymes to digest carbs. When these partially digested carbs enter the stomach, more enzymes, plus B vitamins (aides to the process), completely digest them to their simplest form, glucose. Following this, glucose journeys to the liver to be disseminated throughout the body.
With the help of the hormone insulin, muscles and tissues that need glucose first (perhaps after a work out) use it for energy. Some of it is stored as glycogen in the liver as backup energy. The remaining unused glucose is stored as fat in the liver and in adipose tissue (fat-storing tissues) around your body. So what starts as a complex carb finally ends as glucose, glycogen and potentially fat, which is why loading up on simple and even complex carbs can cause weight gain.
Why Do We Need Carbs?
Several reasons really. First, as you might have guessed, your body derives most of its energy from carbs (or at least, it should) once it is broken down to glucose. It fuels your body’s needs, from working your muscles while you’re exercising to breathing. Secondly, whole grains and potatoes (skin-on) are rich in fibre, which fosters good bowel health and reduces constipation, and in some cases even decreases cholesterol levels. Lastly, believe it or not, carbs can be beneficial if you’re trying to lose weight. Carbs contain fewer calories gram for gram than fat and some are good supplies of fibre. By consuming a portion of complex carbs instead of fatty, sugary foods during your meal, you could reduce the caloric intake in your diet. This can even prevent you from overeating or reaching out for junk food when cravings strike you, as you will stay full for longer.
So What Should I Do?
As you can tell, carbohydrates are such a broad category and not all of them are similar. What’s important is to understand the kind, quality and quantity of carbs you’re getting in your diet.
True, excluding carbs means that your body will use protein and fat for fuel, which would work great for those who are seeking to reduce weight fast. Take note though, what you’re losing in the first few months is water. This is because as your body burns its way into the glycogen stores, the water molecule attached to the glycogen is lost as well. We are effectively “losing water weight” but there is no fat loss yet.
It’s pretty obvious that we should reduce the amount of sugar we consume, particularly added sugars. But relying solely on fat and protein could leave you tired and lacking energy during a workout. You could also experience constipation and be at increased risk of nutrient deficiencies.
Therefore, while subsisting solely on fat and protein is technically achievable, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, especially if you’re replacing carbs with fats and sources of protein that are high in fat. This can increase your intake of saturated fat, elevating your levels of cholesterol.
Another side effect of low carb diets is a build-up of ketones, which is produced when fat is broken down for energy, causing ketosis. The short-term effects of ketosis include headaches, weakness, nausea, dehydration, dizziness and irritability. Long-term implications could be more serious. If you are consuming too little carbs each day but exercising too much, you might not be able to efficiently metabolise body fat and your metabolic rate will drastically reduce over time, making it harder for you to lose weight. Check out our post on fad diets to find out more about problems associated with low carb diets.
The bottom line: No carb is equal.
It might be better for you to adjust your carb consumption based on the types and levels of activities you engage in. Further, it is useful for you to base your meal on starchy carbs of the less processed whole grain varieties, and other healthier sources like potatoes, vegetables, fruits, legumes and lower fat dairy products. Remember that overeating any kind of food, even proteins and fats, will cause weight gain.
In the world of carb confusion, there is certainly unanimous agreement that your sugar intake should be reduced if not eliminated. So if you do want to watch your carbs, eliminate sugary foods, such as sweets, chocolates, biscuits, pastries, cakes and soft drinks with added sugar.
My metabolism is out of whack… Now what?
So, cutting out carbs to reduce calorie intake has wrecked your metabolism by causing it to shut down. How to fix it? The Wellness Insider’s 60-Day Metabolic Tune Up Programme is your solution. We don’t believe in crash diets, no carb control or extreme exercise regimes because health is linked to lifestyle habits. You will learn what to eat and even when to eat. And there will be support and accountability in our private group where our wellness coach and personal trainers will be there to guide you throughout your journey. But don’t take our word for it…read about real changes from real people here. It’s never too late to get your metabolism sorted out. So join us and allow us to take this wellness journey with you.
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