People love to demonise an entire food group. Fat, carbs, sugar, dairy, meat…at some time or another you’ve probably been told that you need to cut one of these out of your diet. The reality, however, is not quite so simple. You can’t just cut out a food group and expect everything to be fixed! Especially when looking at fat loss in particular. In this article we’re looking at one specific question: are carbs bad for you?
First off, let’s be clear on what we mean by carbs.
Carbohydrate is a macronutrient (large food molecule, containing energy) made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. That’s the scientific explanation.
Carbs can be simple, like glucose, or complex, like starch or fibre. Complex carbs are made up of lots of simple carbs joined together in a chain.
Along with the other macronutrients, protein and fat, carbohydrate contains energy (measured in calories). When we digest our food, we absorb the nutrients and our cells release the energy to use in all the processes which keep us alive.
Not enough calories: our cells cease working effectively.
Carbohydrate is the body’s most accessible source of energy. There are pros and cons to this, as we shall discuss very shortly.
The typical foods we think of as being ‘carbs’ are the starchy foods such as bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. Fruit also has carbohydrate, usually in the form of fructose (fruit sugar).
Something many people forget is that carbs are also found in all the veggies, even the leafy greens like kale, spinach and broccoli. These have much lower amounts of carbohydrate than root vegetables or grains, but they are still there.
Beans and legumes also contain carbohydrate, as do most nuts and seeds.
Of course, you will find plenty of carbs in processed food. Remember, sugar is a carbohydrate so anything packed with sugar will have plenty of carbs. Chocolate, ice cream, pastries. Not forgetting sugary soft drinks!
As usual when talking about health and nutrition, this is more than just a simple yes or no answer.
Our bodies require energy, and carbohydrate is a great source of energy. However, with the current availability of sugary and starchy food, plus the sedentary nature of most jobs, many people are getting way more than they need.
It’s worth breaking this down into a couple of specific concerns…
There is a common misconception that carbs can make you gain weight. There is a certain amount of truth to this statement, but only because carbs can be very easy to over consume (especially sugar).
In order to gain weight you must be in a calorie surplus, which means you are consuming more energy than you are burning. This causes your body to store that extra energy for emergencies, and it gets stored in your fat tissue.
Carbs won’t inherently make you gain body fat, but if the amount of carbs you consume takes you into a calorie surplus then yes, you will.
Your choice of carbs is very important when it comes to how much you consume: high-calorie, low-fibre/low-nutrient options such as crisps, chocolate, ice cream, biscuits, cake etc are VERY easy to over-consume! Fruit and veggies, not so much.
Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease, closely related to activity levels and eating habits. It usually requires medical intervention, but it is reversible with lifestyle change.
In the most simple terms, this disease presents when your body stops producing enough insulin, the primary hormone for blood-sugar regulation. Because of this link to blood sugar, many people believe that specifically reducing carbohydrate intake is key.
One of the biggest contributing factors to type 2 diabetes is being overweight or obese, so rather than reducing or removing a specific nutrient it’s more sensible to start by reducing overall calories in a bid to lose excess body fat. This will have a greater effect on insulin levels and blood sugar than removing carbohydrate, so you stand a better chance of reversing the disease entirely.
(Sometimes, type 2 diabetes can be managed with a lower-carb diet, but this would be a possible second step rather than a definite first)
For most people, the biggest negative effect of cutting out carbs is the low energy.
Cutting carbs can result in low blood sugar, especially at first. This means low energy, cravings, and irritability. The classic ‘hangry’ episodes, you know what I mean?
This can make the whole ordeal rather unsustainable, and if the cravings mean you cave in and raid the fridge then this particular route probably isn’t for you.
Don’t get me wrong, some people feel great on a low-carb diet! But they are in the significant minority. Most people struggle, and if something is not sustainable for you then it’s time to look at different options.
To reinforce the point: no individual nutrient is inherently bad for you, especially when it comes to body fat. What matters most is energy balance. Even with type 2 diabetes, excess body fat is a higher risk factor than carbohydrate intake. With this in mind, your energy would be better focused on a general overhaul of your lifestyle to help put you in a calorie deficit.
Rather than cutting out all carbs, try instead to get your carbohydrate from filling, nutrient-dense sources such as vegetables. Keep high-calorie, low-fibre, low-nutrient foods to a minimum (such as ice cream, cakes, chocolate, takeaways etc). Drink lots of water, and add in other low-calorie beverages such as black coffee when you need to change it up! Move more, and move well. Rest well, and get enough sleep.
Cutting out carbs may seem like an easy fix to a complex problem, but lifestyle and habit changes to improve your overall nutrition and activity levels will always win out in the long-term!
If you’re ready to make some lifestyle changes, but you’re not sure where to start, take a look at our 6-Week Transformation Challenge. We’ll help you get a kick-start on your results, without having to ditch carbs!