First off, if you are diabetic or think you are, then please don’t take any of this on board, you don’t do carbs like other people do. See a doctor, don’t listen to me.
Second first off, let’s actually define a ‘Carb’ because the diet and health conscious world we now live in is carbs this and carbs that and cut carbs and rule out carbs and oh pssssssht carbs are fine as long as you watch your macros.
your chemical carb building block- glucose. Image courtesy of nutrientviews.com
Carbohydrate- a molecule containing carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, usually with a hydrogen–oxygen atom ratio of 2:1.
There are big ones and little ones, long chains and short chains. Some people will tell you good ones and bad ones but be under no illusion- the end nutrient is the same, and that is glucose. Whether you eat a chunk of fudge or a raw organic potato with the dirt still on it, that is ending up as glucose in your cells, just in different amounts.
For ease of discussion your big/long/good carbs are ones that take longer to digest because they are bigger molecules that often come combined with some dietary fibre and thus your body uses up a bit more energy to process them. They also tend to have a less dramatic effect on your blood sugar levels which can stave off hunger pangs. Think whole grains, potatoes and beans.
Your short/bad carbs are easily broken down in digestion and join the metabolic systems in the temple that is your body with minimal effort. Think sweet and tasty foods- fruit, honey and table sugar.
Somewhere between the two you find your processed carbs and the less obvious sugars found in dairy which aren’t as easy to categorise. Many foods from bread to beer have sugars in them. The easiest way to identify a sugar is that most of will end in -ose. Glucose, maltose, dextrose and so on. If you are on the alert for added sugars these are on your hit list. Not to mention HFCS which may sound innocent enough until you call it out as High Fructose Corn Syrup. Learn your labels, people.
But do carbs make you fat? That’s what we really mean isn’t it?
An excess of energy you eat vs the energy you expend through the day makes you fat. It is physics, it is thermal dynamics, it is maths. So why do so many diets and eating plans these days suggest that you cut or kill your carb intake? In all honesty it takes a lot of planning and preparation to completely swear off carbs and if you manage it that would be arguably not very good for you. Most low/no carb approaches are likely to reduce your overall calorie intake in one of two ways.
1- You cut out higher calorie food options or combinations (going clean)
2- You maintain steady bloody sugar which results in fewer hunger pangs and food cravings (low GI)
I started to get into these areas then strayed dangerously into the TLDR territory, so a better breakdown of these diet strategies will come in later posts. If you want to learn quickly about how sugars work in the body and effect hunger I suggest a copy of Master Your Metabolism by Jillian Michaels.
mmmm lovely bready bread. But is bread making you (and scott pilgrim) fat?
But is it good for you? Even if we understand calories in vs calories out are there other benefits to chucking out the sugar?
The answer is a very muddy yes-and-no. You need an amount of carbohydrates for the energy to just be alive which is why it tastes good! Eating carbs results in serotonin release, the happy chemical, so we eat sweet things and feel good and by side effect have enough energy to breathe and walk and do stuff. Also bulky carbs like fruit and wholegrains come hand in hand with fibre which is really good for your digestive system making us feel full (more happy chemicals) and eliminate solid waste from the body. Yes, I mean poo. Pooing is good for you.
But excess sugar in the diet is readily swept up by your hormones and stashed as fat to keep you warm and stave off potential periods of starvation. As advanced as humans are, your endocrine system doesn’t know that you live within an easy commute to at least two 24 hour supermarkets. So we save calories in the form of body fat, just incase we need them later. This is part of the reason a lot of people recommend a high protein diet to lose body fat- because protein that isn’t pretty much immediately used for growth or repair in the body is excreted. If you eat more super lean turkey steak than your body needs today, you will pee it out. End of. If you eat more chips or yams than your body needs today, it ends up on your arse or, more worryingly, in your mid-section where it is now associated with many weight related health issues like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Any lower-than-you-are-used-to carb diet can give an immediate result of feeling low, tired and hangry. In simple terms, your body ‘likes’ to run off dietary sugar. It is easy, and if it is what you are used to then your body will try to get you to seek out carby food before burning fat stores. You will crave the bread and the pasta and you will feel wretched while you do. It can take a couple of weeks to adjust. Google low carb flu and ketosis to learn more. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad move though as after the initial carb-flu many people report feeling less hungry and more energised IF they keep up the low carb lifestyle. Weight loss often comes in hand with this both from stored fat loss and elimination of the water that our body stores in the muscles with sugar preserves as glycogen. That’s what we mean when we say ‘water weight’, the dreaded downfall of the fad diet that looks great on the scales but isn’t actually as much of an achievement as it appears when we eat nothing but cabbage and paprika to lose 8 lbs the week before flying to Ibiza.
Dumping carbs is not a fail safe, nor is it an easy lifestyle choice to make. Most carbs are cheap and delicious and abundant. If you are limiting carbs you need to learn to either cook from scratch or religiously scan your ingredients lists. As someone who has been through a medical sugar ban, I can tell you that those -oses are everywhere. In crisps, in yoghurts, in stews and sauces and in the most diabolical way in so many ‘diet’ products where the sugar goes in to counter the lower fat content. That is another pitfall of going no-carb: you have to eat something else and that is likely to lead to an increase in your fat intake which is potentially worse for weight loss efforts and some health conditions. We will talk about that another time.
With so much stealth sugar out there, it can be seen as easier to blanket dump everything in that carbon-hydrogen-oxygen proportion altogether but I believe that you can get on just fine with regulated carbs included in your diet. And if you regulate most of the time the odd cake binge infront of Marco Polo or your netflix boxset of choice isn’t going to destroy your six pack. Or two pack. No judgement.
And still here we are, TLDR so time to sum up, are you going to eat carbs? Well yes, you will in some way or another unless you are going to full ketosis which is very difficult to maintain longterm and will make you cranky and smell bad. True story.
Are you going to live off chips and brioche then? I really wouldn’t. Just spend some time researching how many laps around the field it will take you to counteract that stack of sandwiches and tweak your diet accordingly. Get a macros tracker like My Fitness Pal or similar and be vigilant because hidden carbs are everywhere and they are not all created equally.
To prove this, I am going back to the front in the name of science and my readers and go for a week where I am going to record my carb intake and do my very utmost to cut out added sugar and let you know how that goes. This is going to hurt.