Carbs are often thought of as the ‘bad guys’ in terms of weight loss. This idea came to the fore in the days of the Atkins Diet which promoted eating as much protein and fat as you wanted as long as you ate no carbs. Although the Atkins Diet was and is now widely recognised as an unhealthy way to eat and lose weight, many people are still confused about carbs. What exactly is meant by ‘carbs’ and are there good carbs and bad ones? Let’s delve deeper.
Carbs is the shortened name for carbohydrate which is a molecular structure found in all plants – so in terms of food, carbohydrates are found in all vegetables, fruit and grain. Our body is designed to function at its best on a diet that is mostly carbohydrates and with small amounts of protein and good fats. Carbohydrates are broken down by our digestive system into simple sugars which are used by our cells as a source of energy.
When people talk about ‘carbs’ what they usually mean is the starchy, refined, processed foods or those with added sugar. These foods can be detrimental to weight loss (see below), but raw or lightly cooked vegetables, most fruit and whole grains are really good for you as they contain lots of vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients (micro-nutrients that provide a whole host of protective properties: anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-oxidant and some even have cancer fighting agents) and dietary fibre. Foods that are broken down into sugar rapidly are known as simple carbohydrates the not-so-good-for-you carbs and complex carbohydrates for those that are good for you, but very few people understand what this means. I prefer the terms ‘slow-energy-release’ and ‘quick-energy-release’ which shows these foods on a scale and it helps people understand that there are some foods that are in the middle.
The carbs that we need the most are those which our body finds relatively difficult to be broken down into sugars. These are vegetables and fruit (especially when they are eaten raw) and whole grains. When we eat slow-energy release foods our body converts the carbohydrates into simple sugars releasing it into our blood stream in a trickle which helps our cells get a constant, steady supply of the sugars from which it can produce energy—which is good. When we eat quick energy release carbs—starchy, sugary foods—our body rapidly turns them into simple sugars which surge into our blood stream, increasing our blood sugar (glucose) levels. This amount of sugar in our blood-stream is too much for our body to handle and so insulin is secreted into the blood stream to ‘mop’ it up. Insulin converts the sugar into glycogen and stores it temporarily in the liver or in our muscles, or it converts it into body fat, storing it for a rainy not-enough-food day. The trouble is in the developed world the vast majority of us no longer go days without food, and so body fat is stored layer upon layer – until we do something about it.
When we trigger an insulin response to reduce our raised blood sugar levels, it’s often very efficient and it can cause our blood sugar levels to crash, making us crave even more sweet and starchy foods! In this way a horrible vicious cycle is created. Not only does eating a lot of this type of food increase your tendency to put on weight, it has the devastating effect of overworking your pancreas (which secretes insulin), which is partly why there has been such a big increase in Type II Diabetes and obesity.
So carbs are the biggest group of foods and not just the few identified by those that contain high levels of sugar, starch or have been highly processed. Choose to eat a lot of the slow-energy-release foods such as vegetables (regular potatoes are best limited: sweet potatoes are fine), good amounts of fruit (limiting those that are very sweet such as bananas, dates and grapes and dried fruit), and eat small amounts of whole grains such as brown or wild rice, oats and wholemeal flour.
Try to really limit foods you eat with added sugar, or refined grains, or food that has been highly processed or modified. This includes most breakfast cereals, anything made with white flour, virtually all ready meals, all commercial fruit juices (even the ones that tell you it counts as ‘1-of-your-5-a-day’ for they are very high in sugars), any foods where on the ingredient list you see an “–ose” such as: glucose, lactose, sucrose etc, and most foods labelled “Low Fat” as these almost certainly will have had the fat replaced with starches, gums and thickeners all of which are quick-energy release carbs.
If you have a question about Carbs or any other aspect of Clean Eating – please ask me and I shall be delighted to help you.
Eat Well—Be Well 🙂