If fat was the enemy of the 80s and 90s, carbohydrates are the controversy of today. With different versions of low-carb diets popping up everywhere, it’s easy to wonder whether you should be turning down the bread and pasta. But how do you know if you should eat carbs or not? This is what I’m going to answer.
What are carbohydrates?
Some people have different definitions of what a carbohydrate actually is. On a scientific level, carbohydrates are molecules with a particular makeup of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In terms of food, carbohydrates usually refer to foods that are made up mostly of these molecules.
Carbohydrates can be classified as simple or complex. Simple carbs are also known as sugars. Complex carbs are your starchier options such as wholegrains.
Another thing that is important to understand is fibre. Fibre is an essential nutrient that comes within carbohydrate-containing foods. However, the human body cannot break fibre down, and therefore, it does not contribute to the body’s energy.
Low-carb diet advocates will generally not count fibre when it comes to tracking and restricting carbohydrates. So if a food has 15g of carbohydrates, but 7g of that is fibre, it will be counted as 8g of ‘net carbohydrates’.
What nutrients are found in carbohydrates?
Because there are many foods that contain carbohydrates, there are many other nutrients that may be found in high-carb foods. These include:
- Soluble fibre – the fibre that supports healthy gut bacteria
- Insoluble fibre – the fibre that increases satiety and adds to stool bulk
- B group vitamins
- Vitamin C
Moderate-carb foods such as legumes can also contain minerals, protein and healthy fats.
Which diets restrict carbohydrates?
There are a million different variations on a carbohydrate restriction diet. The most popular today is the ketogenic diet, where you restrict your net carbohydrates below 50g or even 30g per day. Learn a bit more about the ketogenic diet here.
Other low-carbohydrate diets (or diets that can be low-carb) you might know of include:
- Atkins diet
- CSIRO low carbohydrate diet
- Paleo/Primal diet
- Western A Price Foundation diet
Who should be eating carbohydrates?
There are some groups that are more likely to benefit from eating a higher proportion of carbs. However, if you fall into these categories, it doesn’t guarantee that your best option is a higher carb diet.
Many competitive athletes find that a low-carb diet can affect their performance. Generally speaking, endurance athletes respond well to carbohydrate restriction, but athletes that require explosive power do not. So if you do participate in sports, you may experience performance issues on a lower-carbohydrate diet.
Children are another group that may need more carbohydrates. This is because they are growing so fast, they need a constant feed of energy into the body. As proteins and fats are quite satiating, it can be hard to reach calorie needs, especially if a child has a lower appetite. If your child does need to increase their calories, adding in fruits, vegetables and unprocessed carbohydrates should always be the focus over refined carbohydrate options.
Pregnant women are generally advised to avoid a low-carb diet. My exception to this is if you have already been successfully following a low-carb diet for a reasonable period of time prior to conception. In this case, I suggest that mum-to-be follows her instincts about food.
People who need to follow a low-residue or low-fibre diet for medical reasons may reduce their overall carbohydrate intake. However, it can be very difficult to maintain a healthy very low carbohydrate diet when fibre is also restricted. So although you may wish to reduce your carbohydrates, it would be better to focus on including healthier low-fibre options.
Who shouldn’t be eating carbohydrates?
There are several health concerns that research suggests low-carb approaches can benefit. These include:
- People who are overweight or obese and need to reduce their weight
- People with type 2 diabetes and/or metabolic syndrome
- Those who experience epilepsy or other neurological disorders
There are two main reasons why a low-carb diet can benefit someone. Firstly, restricting carbs will generally balance out blood sugars and help address insulin resistance. This is why people with type 2 diabetes often do well on a low-carb diet. It also explains why additional weight loss often occurs – the body is better able to access and utilise energy when the blood sugars are controlled.
When it comes to neurological conditions, the important factor is the onset of ketosis. To put it simply, ketosis is when the body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates and switches to a different energy system. When the body is in a state of ketosis, it changes the energy systems used in the brain, which in turn stabilises the brain cells. This is why many epileptics respond well to a low-carb approach.
There are also other metabolic disorders that affect how carbs are processed in the body. Treatment will generally involve a ketogenic diet.
Quality vs quantity
As a nutritionist, I believe everyone should be aware of what carbohydrates can do to the body. However, at the end of the day, we all have different needs. Some people will do well with restricting carbohydrates. Others may benefit by simply improving the quality of the carbohydrates they do eat.
How can you make smarter choices when it comes to carbohydrates?
- Look for high-fibre options
- Choose wholefood options over refined foods, particularly when it comes to grains
- Include options that have other nutrients such as protein or good fats as well as carbohydrates
- Make lower-carbohydrate foods such as green vegetables the bulk of your meals
- Serve higher-carbohydrate foods as a side instead of basing the dish around them
The bottom line
Carbohydrates can have negative impacts on some people, and fantastic for others. If you do want to try a low-carbohydrate diet, it’s best to have a health professional on your team to get you set up with a healthy approach. If cutting carbs isn’t your preference, do make sure you eat high-quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates the majority of the time.