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Myth Busting Series part 2 – Carbs!

Nutrition is a subject guaranteed to create debate, with everyone from your doctor to your best friend having an opinion, not to mention all of the online ‘guru’s and ‘wellness influencers’ determined to convince you that carbs are the enemy, gluten is positively deadly and sugar is probably the reason your wife left you.

Before we get going, I would like to take a minute to recognise that for some people, the next few articles might be a little… uncomfortable at times. This is because what we eat and why we eat is a complex and personal subject. Think about it- some people choose not to eat particular foods for ethical or religious reasons, some for health concerns and some may have complex psychological issues around food. Remember all those times you were told to clear your plate before being allowed to get down from the table? Of course, a very understandable comment when we think of a post-war generation for whom food had been both scarce and expensive, however it isn’t too much of a hop, skip and a jump to make a connection between this and over-eating in later life. There is also a frankly overwhelming amount of misinformation and questionable marketing that has led to many foods and food groups becoming demonised in the public eye. So, as you go on to read these articles know that it is okay for new information to feel uncomfortable at times, but that ultimately as we break down these myths we are allowing ourselves freedom from arbitrary food rules and the judgement from our peers each time we opt for chips instead of a side salad.
I encourage you to be kind to yourself if it gets uncomfortable and to sit with those feelings and explore where they have come from. I’ll also link some excellent resources at the bottom for anyone seeking a little extra support or understanding.

Oh my word, there are so many myths about carbs that I almost don’t know where to start. Almost.

I bet you have heard all sorts of things about carbs?

‘Carbs make you fat’
‘Carbs are bad for you’
‘Carbs make you sleepy’
‘Carbs make you hungrier’

And my personal favourite ‘no carbs before Marbs’. Actually, no, wait. My favourite is this one:

Somehow manages to make me laugh and rage all at once.  

Once upon a time, fat was public enemy number one with low fat diets the mainstay of the 1970’s & ’80’s. By the late 90’s we’d started to reinstate our love of butter but began to malign carbohydrates. (I say ‘we’ but in the 90’s I was too busy grieving the Spice Girls to care much about food in all honesty.) There are many reasons as to why carbs became the black sheep of the family (incomplete/dubious research, scaremongering and industry rigging), but the most interesting point to note is that most people don’t fully understand what a carbohydrate is. If you were to ask the person next to you “what is a carbohydrate” I bet they will mention bread, pasta and rice. Take it a step further and ask them “what is a ‘bad’ carb” and I doubly bet you they say ‘errr, white carbs? White bread, white pasta, white potatoes…’ Are they right or are they wrong? Can we label carbs as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Grab a cuppa and let’s learn a little of the actual science. Knowledge is power after all.

It’s not difficult to see why we find it hard to know what to eat… the message keeps changing. But, by learning the science, we can learn to correctly interpret what the media decides to show us.

A carbohydrate is one of the three macronutrients– carbs, protein and fats- that the body cannot create itself and therefore needs to source externally in order to ensure optimal functioning of the body. And, in my opinion, thank goodness for that as it means we get to EAT!

Carbs can be broken down into simple and complex carbohydrates. If we think back to our brief chemistry lesson in the Sugar article, we remember that monosaccharides and disaccharides contain one and two units respectively and it is these types of sugars that make up our simple carbohydrates. Complex carbs are those which have three or more molecules, called Polysaccharides. When you eat food, your body breaks down the carbs into their smallest units of sugar (such as fructose, galactose and glucose) which are absorbed by the bloodstream and transported to the liver which in turn converts those sugar units into glucose. This glucose is the primary fuel for the body’s basic functions and any physical movement. A certain amount of excess glucose is stored (as glycogen) within the liver and skeletal muscle with the remainder being turned into body fat – to be used as fuel when the stored glycogen runs out.

Simple carbs:
– Fruit juice
– Table sugars
– Syrups
– Sweets
– Baked Goods
– Fruit
– White bread/rice/pasta

Complex carbs:
– Wholegrain bread/rice/pasta
– Legumes
– Nuts
– Beans
– Vegetables

Erm, isn’t that pretty much a list of all the foods we eat? Yeh, pretty much! As you can see from those examples, the majority of the food we consume contains carbs to some varying degree. And yet, this is a food group that we are told, over and over, is bad for us. We are encouraged to ‘cut carbs’ by seemingly every hack nutritionist, guru and celebrity. Beyoncé stated that she was “limiting myself to no bread, no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no alcohol…” in her Homecoming documentary. Whilst eating an apple I might point out. Roughly 15g of carbs right there. Love the music, hate the bonkers diet.

Are there some carb-based foods that have a higher level of micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) than others? Yes. Should we prioritise those more micronutrient dense foods in our diet? Well, sure. Should we demonise the carb-based foods that don’t have as high a micro-nutritional value as the others? HECK NO! Look, it doesn’t take a science degree to know that all those delicious cakes & pastries that I am *obsessed* with are not necessarily the most nutritious foods on the planet. However, food is about so much more than just calories and nutrients. It’s about socialising and about comfort, it’s about memories (the smell of Brandy will always remind me of my Grandma’s tipsy Christmas puddings!). It’s about sitting down with your kids and making silly words with alphabet spaghetti, or making your best friend a cake, just because. If food was just a simple matter of calories and nutrients then why do we base our huge life moments – weddings, birthdays, wakes, around food?

Any excuse to show my beautiful wedding cakes – made by RAW members!

Harking back to that ‘carbs are fattening’ myth… Carbs and protein contain roughly 4kcal per gram, with fat ringing in at around 9kcal per gram. So how is it that carbs are more fattening than protein or fat? Simple answer is – they’re not.

As we’ve just learnt, our bodies store carbs as glycogen within the muscle (so it can quickly fuel you as you sprint up a flight of stairs), and for every molecule of glycogen the body stores, it also stores 2-3 grams of water. And this is where a lot of confusion happens- if a person is weighing themselves daily and eats more carbs than usual on Monday, they will likely notice the scales jump up on Tuesday and assume it is because they had that extra round of toast and therefore put on weight. But in actual fact, whilst, yes, the number on the scales may have moved upwards, this is simply the extra water you are holding on to – not body fat! The body cannot lay down considerable fat stores that quickly. This also works in reverse – a person who opts for a low carb or Ketogenic-style diet will often notice considerable weight loss within the first week or two, however this is mostly just water being stripped away, due to the lack of carbs being stored. Not to mention that, if you have cut out carbs, then you have cut potentially 60%+ of your daily calories. Therefore, it is less about the carbs causing the weight loss and more about the significant calorie reduction.

There are a myriad of diets that call for a culling of carbs, from Atkins to the Ketogenic diet, Paleo to the (absurd) ‘Carnivore’ diet (there is always another company or influencer ready to take our money in exchange for a poorly put together diet plan), but thanks to the DIETFIT’s study, where over 600 people were randomly assigned either a low carb or low fat diet over a 12 month period, in order to assess which diet pattern was more effective for weight loss. I’ll link the study at the bottom for those interested, but the up shot? Neither style of eating was significantly better at helping people lose weight. What did help these people lose weight was an increase in activity and a few lessons in nutrition and cooking. Pretty basic stuff right?

This all said, I will concede that it is much, much easier to over consume those highly palatable carb-based foods (delicious cakes and what-not) than it is a high protein food. For example, we’ve all had those days where we could eat round after buttery round of white toast and before we know it – half a loaf has been demolished! Whereas I don’t think many of us have stood over a tray of roasted chicken breasts and eaten one after another? So yes, reducing the amount of carbs we eat (in the form of cakes, pastries and sweets) as a population is probably not the worst idea we’ve had, but we certainly don’t need to completely eliminate all carbs! In fact, if we try to reduce the amount of carbs we are eating too much, our bodies will use the protein we’re consuming as fuel, which is problematic for a couple of reasons. For starters, as a population, we tend to under consume protein and therefore need all that we’re eating to be used for its primary role – to help our bodies repair our muscles and lay down new muscle tissue. We ought not forget that our hearts are muscles and that we want to hang on to as much lean muscle mass as possible, especially as we age.
Secondly, if a person has increased their protein consumption to make up for their reduced carb intake, then they are risking additional stress on their kidneys if they maintain this way of eating in the long term.

If you’re wondering what I mean by ‘highly palatable’ then this apple, raisin and butterscotch Dutch pancake is the best example I can find!

Ready for some positive carb news? Now we have wrapped our heads around some of the carb myths, let’s look at the nutritional benefits instead. I am going to focus on some of the nutrients that are found mainly in bread, pasta and rice, as these are the foods that tend to get culled when people say, “I’m cutting out carbs!” (And because I feel confident that you don’t need me to tell you to eat fruits and veggies… c’mon, you already know the benefits of those!)

The main nutrient to focus on is poor, neglected fibre- we all focus so much on reducing carbs and tracking calories, that we forget to keep an eye on this vital nutrient. It is recommended that adults consume 30g of fibre per day which may help lower the risk of heart disease, type II diabetes, stroke and bowel cancer. Fibre also helps us poo! Leaving the skins on our fruits and veggies (where logical… please don’t eat an orange peel because… eurgh) helps get us there, but the real bang for buck when it comes to fibre is wholegrains. A serving of wholegrain pasta (75g dry weight) contains roughly 7 grams of fibre, which gives us a big nudge in the right direction towards our recommended 30g. Again, just a little comparison- an apple contains roughly 2 grams, which is still good, but hopefully you can see that if you have cut out bread, pasta and rice that it is going to take A LOT of fruits and veggies to get you to 30g of fibre.

Alongside fibre, B vitamins are found within wholegrain bread, pasta and rice. B vitamins are important for energy levels, eye sight, the healthy functioning of the brain, hormone production to name just a few!

Wholegrains also contain Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Zinc, Protein – hardly an nutritionally void food!

So, the next time you hear someone say that carbs are bad, or that they are cutting them out of their diet, remind them that, as with most things, it’s a lot more nuanced and complicated than ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and that often, the stress of restricting a food group causes far more harm than the actual food ever will. Oh, and white potatoes are not the enemy either.

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