TO EAT OR NOT TO EAT? - THE TRUTH ABOUT CARBS
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In recent years online nutrition trends and fad diets have often portrayed carbohydrates as the big bad wolf that is certain to completely ruin all your health & fitness hopes and dreams…
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I’m here today to try to break through the over-hyped carb phobic nonsense and bring some real awareness to what carbs actually are, and to talk to you about how and why we should be including carbohydrates in our diets.
So as we are obviously all aware, sugar is public enemy #1; responsible for every single bad thing that has ever happened on this planet and in the entire universe, right??? Well no, but it may as well be with the amount of negative press it receives.
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I’m not here to tell you sugar is good, or that you shouldn’t reduce your consumption (you should), I’m just setting the scene for this discussion, bear with me.
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Sugar (in particular refined sugar) has been widely condemned in the health and nutrition field, and perhaps rightly so, but unfortunately, the whole world of carbohydrates has become tangled up in the sugar mess and has now been unfairly dragged through the mud too. You see, while yes sugar is simply a carbohydrate, not all carbohydrates are simply sugar. They are not synonymous with each other. You probably wouldn’t equate a can of coke to a bowl of quinoa and broccoli; right? Well, that’s because carbs are a hugely varied food group, made up of foods ranging from carrots and spinach to fizzy drinks and white sugar. Apples, bananas, berries, potatoes, broccoli, spinach, carrots, oats, quinoa, rice, pasta, bread and a thousand other foods; these can all be classified as carbs, and yet they all absolutely have a place in a well-balanced and healthy diet. My eyes have a tendency to roll all the way back into my brain whenever I hear someone advise to simply ‘cut your carbs’, this type of broad non-specific diet advice is incredibly useless and doesn’t provide any insight or understanding into how the human body works or how we individually react and tolerate different ways of eating. It is so important to understand that not all carbs behave in the same way as refined sugar.
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So let's dive in a little deeper, obviously spinach and sugar aren’t the same thing; I doubt I’m blowing your mind with this revelation. But what about all the so-called ‘‘questionable carbs’’ in-between? I’m talking about foods like rice, pasta, bread, oats, potatoes, and fruit. I’m sure we have all seen those foods being negatively associated with health and weight-loss at one time or another.
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There are many different ways you can categorize these ‘questionable carbs’, processed & natural, refined & wholegrain, sugar & starch, sweet & savory, you get the idea. When I hear the word ‘carbs’, personally I instantly think of foods like rice, oats, quinoa, roast veggies, fruit, and vegetables, since these are the foods that I most often include in my diet as my main source of carbohydrates. However some people hear the word ‘carbs’ and their mind goes straight to foods like cake, pizza, donuts, chips, lollies, pastry, bread etc. While these foods do contain relatively high amounts of carbohydrates, they also often contain equally high amounts of unhealthy fats and/or sodium, and they are generally also highly processed foods. In my opinion, it is grossly unfair to simply categorize all of these foods together simply as ‘carbs’, and attempt to remove them from your diet.
There have been countless scientific studies and meta-analysis’ showing the long-term health benefits of consuming a diet high in whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables (and all veggies of course!) and legumes. A high carbohydrate diet is nothing to be afraid of, as long as the quality of those carbohydrates is something you carefully consider. Most health and nutrition agencies recommend getting between 45-65% of your daily energy from carbohydrates, and increased intakes above this level (of good quality carbs) have actually been associated with extra beneficial health outcomes.
My biggest recommendation when it comes to consuming carbohydrates and improving your nutrition is this; focus on improving the QUALITY of your carbs, not reducing the quantity. Foods like fruit, starchy vegetables, oats, whole grains, legumes etc. are all great sources of energy as well as being important sources of vitamins and minerals, not to mention fiber!!!! Including high quality, minimally processed carbohydrates in your diet is a great way to increase your daily fiber intake (did you know that 97% of Americans do not consume enough fiber daily?!). While I absolutely DO recommend reducing the amount of refined carbs in your diet (think refined sugar, white bread, cakes, sugary drinks), aiming to drastically reduce your total consumption of all carbohydrates is a highly ineffective way to improve your diet., since when you cut carbs out you are also cutting out your main sources of fibre, volume, and an endless amount of nutrients.
Studies have shown that simply removing carbs from your diet is not associated with any significant positive health outcomes, whereas swapping those refined carbohydrates for high-quality unprocessed carbohydrates was associated with significant health benefits. So don’t waste time trying to reduce the amount of carbs you are eating, instead switch your focus to finding healthier alternatives for those refined carbohydrate foods.
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So by now you probably just want to know exactly which carbohydrates are healthy and which ones are probably best avoided. Personally, I hate classing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (it’s just food after all, it doesn’t have morals…), and since health is a huge spectrum that differs for each individual, you cannot treat every diet as the same! So instead of simply good vs. bad, I try to base my food choices/recommendations on a few simple criteria.
- How processed is this food? (i.e. wholegrain vs. refined)
- How many ingredients are in it?
- Is it high in nutrients and/or fiber?
- Does it contain high levels of saturated fat or sodium?
- Will it keep me satiated and feeling full until my next meal?
For example, let's start with bananas; they aren’t processed at all, contain only one ingredient (banana lol), are high in vitamins, minerals, water and fiber, low in saturated fat and sodium. They also do keep me relatively satiated, but not as much as grains e.g. Oats/rice.
Another example is wholegrain oats. They’re minimally processed, wholegrain, contain only one ingredient, are full of fiber and nutrients, and are extremely satiating and filling! Therefore oats are one of my staple high carb foods that I eat almost every day!
Foods like cakes, bread, fruit juices, muesli bars etc. are all highly processed, usually contain long lists of ingredients, are low in nutrients and fiber, and tend to leave you feeling unsatisfied and craving more! So these types of high carb foods are best kept to small amounts in your day-to-day diet, although cutting them out completely probably isn’t necessary.
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What about those pesky foods like rice and pasta? These foods tend to cause a little more confusion since they sit more in the middle ground of ‘the health spectrum’. From a nutritional point of view, these foods are relatively neutral for our health. While yes they are more processed than other types of carbohydrates and don’t contain particularly high levels of nutrients, they also don’t contain high amounts of saturated fat or sodium etc. For me personally, I find rice and pasta to be extremely satiating foods that keep me full for a very long time, and fuel me well for exercise. For this reason I have no problem regularly including them in my diet, I just make sure to always pair them with other more nutrient-dense foods (such as veggies, proteins) to balance out the meal. If you are aiming to consume a ‘perfectly clean diet’ and get the maximum possible amount of nutrients in every single meal, then maybe rice and pasta aren’t for you. But if you do love rice or pasta (like me!), don’t feel like its ‘unhealthy’ and you have to cut it out. Just be aware that they do not contain so many nutrients on their own, and be sure to include them in a balanced meal.
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One of the biggest problems I have with nutrition trends and advice these days is the focus on eating 100% clean 100% of the time. If that’s easy and manageable for you then awesome, congrats! But for 99% of us (me included), eating perfectly clean every single meal is neither realistic nor actually beneficial when you consider the toll it takes on your mental health. I would simply encourage people to try to base the majority of their meals around those healthy carbohydrate sources like fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes etc., add a good source of protein and fats (I will talk more about these another time) and try not to stress about eating slightly ‘less healthy’ foods in moderate amounts. A donut or pizza here and there really isn’t the problem; it’s the types of food that we regularly eat every single day that will affect our long-term health and wellness.
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So to sum it all up;
Carbs do not automatically equal sugar, and are not the enemy.
Focus on improving the quality of carbs, not reducing the amount.
High carbohydrate foods are often also high in nutrients and fiber.
Majority of your daily energy intake should be good quality carbs.
Basically, carbs don't always mean sugar, and they definitely don't necessarily mean unhealthy. Stop trying to remove carbs from your diet and instead focus that energy on switching to healthier, less processed carbohydrates. Carbs are a great source of fuel and nutrition, so don't listen to anyone who tells you that they are unhealthy or should be taken out of your diet. Learn how to choose the best carbohydrate sources for your individual lifestyle, relax and enjoy them!!!
Thanks for reading!
If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact me on our instagram @inlinenutrition or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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