Of all nutrients, it’s carbohydrates that tend to attract the most criticism in the media, much of which I believe is unwarranted.
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient, meaning we need them in larger quantities than micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Their main function is to give us energy, yet somewhere in the midst of all the claims and fake news this information has become blurred, resulting in carbs being blamed for weight gain whilst sugar is considered the evil of all evils.
In this blog, I debunk some of the major misconceptions about carbohydrates that unhelpfully circulate the media and explain why we should stop obsessing about them.
Myth 1: Carbs cause weight gain
No specific food or food group alone causes weight gain; a calorie surplus does. Put simply, if you consistently eat more calories than your body requires then you’ll gain weight, regardless of whether those extra calories come from a banana or Big Mac.
Interestingly, however, carbohydrates hold water when they’re stored in our bodies and can make us feel extra bloated or ‘puffy’ after a heavy meal. Indeed, if you jump on the scales after a few days of carb-dense meals, you’ll probably be heavier but it’s worth noting – this isn’t fat gain – it’s likely due to water retention, meaning a few days of normal eating and drinking plenty of water and you’ll soon be back to your usual weight.
Myth 2: There are good and bad carbs
There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ carbohydrate (or food for that matter) as it depends on the entirety of your diet as to what’s best for every individual.
There are certainly more nutritious sources of carbohydrates than others. Skittles and jelly babies are purely carbohydrates as are apples and bananas. The difference is that fruit, vegetables and wholegrains provide other important nutrients like vitamins and minerals, fibre, protein and other trace elements that won’t be present in other carbohydrate rich foods like crisps, pastries and sweets.
Considering current government advice is to limit our intake of free sugars and saturated fats, and to increase our intake of fibre, it can definitely be argued that we should avoid heavily processed carbohydrates in favour of more whole food sources.
Myth 3: Fruit is bad for us as it’s high in sugar
My short response to this, like all other myths, is that it’s untrue. But granted, the explanation as to why can be confusing.
Fruit does contain sugar, which in recent years we’ve been programmed to believe should be avoided like the plague, or at least dramatically reduced from our diets. However, this piece of government advice applies to added sugar, not total sugar. The former is sugars we chuck into foods during the cooking or manufacturing process. It’s also the table sugar we might use to sweeten our tea or coffee and is also found in some fizzy drinks as well as in cakes, pastries, desserts and sometimes even in our savoury foods – like bread, pasta sauces and tinned soups etc. It’s advised we consume no more than 25-30g of added sugar per day.
The sugars naturally present within the cellular structure of foods is known as ‘intrinsic’ or ‘natural’ sugars and these include fructose in fruit and lactose in milk. These sugars are not considered ‘added sugars’ so don’t need to be restricted to the same extent.
Fruit juice and smoothies are different, however, and this is where it gets more confusing. Because juices and smoothies are blended, the sugars within the cell walls of the fruit are released and for this reason, these count towards our ‘added sugar’ intake. Too much of anything isn’t good for us, so when you consider one glass of orange juice might be providing the juice and sugar content of 5-6 oranges, it should be consumed in moderation.
Myth 4: Potatoes, bread and pasta are the only carbs
Firstly, potatoes, bread and pasta are sources of carbohydrates. Whilst foods might predominantly consist of one nutrient, there are typically small amounts of other nutrients within them too e.g. chicken is mostly protein but contains some fat, beans, chickpeas and lentils are sources of protein but are also high in carbohydrates.
Potatoes, bread and pasta are what we typically think of when we hear the term ‘carbohydrates’ but foods rich in fibre will also contain carbohydrates i.e. vegetables, beans and pulses. Dairy and milk also contain small amounts of carbohydrates as they contain lactose.
Myth 5: Our bodies don’t need carbs
Whoever came up with this one clearly has no concept of basic human biology. As explained, once consumed, carbohydrates are broken into glucose within our blood, just like protein is broken down into amino acids and fat is separated into a glycerol and fatty acids. Glucose is the simplest form of carbohydrate, and is the energy unit for our cells.
The function of carbohydrates is to provide energy to every cell in our bodies and in the event this macronutrient is scarce, protein and fat can be used to create glucose so our brains and cells can avail of energy. Our bodies aren’t very efficient in doing this hence carbohydrates being the body’s preferred source of fuel.
Aside from stamina, carbohydrates are also pretty essential to our physical and mental wellness. Fibre is known to improve our gut health, prevent constipation, reduce cholesterol and improve our heart health. High fibre diets are typically associated with a lower incidence of diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer, and reducing our carbohydrate intake may impact the amount of fibre we consume. The average UK adult consumes less than 18g of fibre, which is almost half of the recommended 30g per day.
Myth 6: A low carb diet is the best way to lose weight
The best weight loss diet is one that fuels your body efficiently, one you enjoy and one you can adhere to. All weight-loss diets work in the same way and that’s to create a calorie deficit. By eliminating an entire food group, or dramatically cutting down on your intake of it, you’ll cut out a large amount of calories. But this method of dieting is not sustainable. Carbohydrates provide 4kcal per gram, whereas fat provides 9kcal per gram, so you could argue that you can get more food for your calories (bang for your buck) by including carbohydrates when dieting.
Myth 7: Protein is more important than carbs
Carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of fuel and our body needs fuel to conduct every tiny and essential function. This doesn’t mean carbohydrates are the most important nutrient, but the body will prioritise obtaining glucose over preserving muscle for example in the event carbohydrates are limited.
When there’s a lack of carbohydrates, protein and fats aren’t used for their specific functions of growth and repair of cells and tissues plus the production of enzymes and hormones.
Myth 8: Eating carbs in the evening will cause weight gain
Our bodies cannot tell the time so they don’t treat food differently depending on whether you’ve eaten it at 10am or 10pm!
Weight gain is caused by consistently consuming an excess of calories over a period of time, and it doesn’t matter whether the surplus is consumed in the morning, afternoon, evening or night.