Credit Carbs

It’s the much maligned food group that needn’t mean fat. Nutritionist Leo Pemberton gives you the skinny on starch.

If there’s one food group that gets a bad press, it’s carbohydrates. Since the Atkins diet revolution of the 90s, high fat-high protein diets have rarely been out of the news, touted as a miracle cure for everything from heart disease and obesity to Type-2 Diabetes. Carbs are often cast as the villain of the piece – but cutting them out is neither as simple nor effective as you might believe (sorry to disappoint you, Gwyneth Paltrow).

Firstly, there are very few studies into the effect of a carb-free diet. In any case, while low-carb diets do promote weight loss, even the most committed devotees often struggle to stick to the plan in the long-term. The novelty of having double cream with bacon and eggs in the morning and a steak for lunch can wear off pretty quickly (also, who the hell can quit potatoes forever?). It is an expensive choice, makes eating out a minefield and can come with some undesirable side effects, like bad breath and constipation.

What high protein diets usually fail to realise is that there are carbs and carbs. Carbs are not one homogenous group. In fact, there’s huge variation in taste, texture and nutritional value among carbohydrate foods. It’s a question of choosing them wisely, because in fact, energy regulation and mental performance and are all enhanced, not hindered, by sensible carb intake.

Sugar is a key consideration. The white stuff creeps into so many foods. Pastries, biscuits and confectionery not only contain sugar and white flour but a hefty portion of fat calories. These foods tend to be high on the Glycaemic Index (GI), releasing the energy quickly and causing a ‘spike’ in our blood-glucose levels. You’ll also get this effect from ‘white carbs’ like white bread, crisps and mashed potato as well as juices and smoothies. Lots of us get stuck on a daily roller-coaster ride of blood sugar rises and dips from high-GI foods. It can cause havoc with our mood and performance and ultimately result in long-term weight gain.

Many patients I see in clinic complain of low energy in the afternoon. This is often as a result of these blood sugar spikes, but beware – it can also be a consequence of cutting carbs completely. Lower-GI carbs such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta, granary bread, quinoa and rolled oats – the list is long and varied – help stabilise energy levels, improve performance, fill you up for longer and stop those energy crashes. They contain more nutrients and, crucially, fibre. Mid-afternoon snacks like savoury popcorn or oatcakes can help avoid overeating later in the evening by regulating blood sugar.

So if carbs are essentially good, how much is enough? How active we are influences our carb requirements. Those who are desk-bound and commute by car need less than someone doing lots of activity or sports. As a rule of thumb for a balanced diet, carbs should make up a third of your meal plate, along with plenty of vegetables and a palm-sized protein portion. Fresh fruit, whole grains and calcium-containing foods should also be a part of your daily diet.

And whatever you do, don’t forget the veg. People are so hung up on protein Vs carb that they frequently overlook greens. If vegetables are absent from our diet, inevitably our carb consumption will go up to fill the gap, meaning a greater calorie intake. Vegetables are mainly low-carb but high in fibre, water, vitamins and minerals. My message here is more and varied!

For steady and sustainable weight loss and improved energy levels, following a lower-GI diet with plenty of grains, lentils and pulses (which are also good protein sources) can reap rewards. Populations with long average life spans – such as Italy and Japan – traditionally include carbs within a balanced diet, few processed foods and modest amounts of sugar and fat. Plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein all feature. These diets prove that you can achieve a healthy diet and weight without quitting the carbs.

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Image credit: United Soybean Board @ Flickr creative commons

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