Poor old carbohydrate gets demonised by media, diet culture and even some professionals as being the main cause of weight gain and other health issues.
As a result, I’ve talked to many people who feel guilty for eating carbohydrates. But there are plenty of good reasons not to feel this way! There is a place for carbohydrate foods in our diets and you don’t need to fear eating them. What’s most important is the type of carbohydrates you eat and getting a balanced diet that’s right for your needs.
Here are three reasons you shouldn’t be afraid to eat carbs:
1. Carbohydrates DO NOT make you fat
Some low-carb advocates believe that carbohydrates uniquely drive weight gain because they raise levels of the hormone insulin. Insulin is the hormone that allows us to absorb glucose (which carbohydrate breaks down to) into our cells to provide us with energy. Insulin is also said to block the breakdown of fat and drive fat storage. If the theory that raised insulin levels lead to fat storage, then a low carbohydrate diet which lowers insulin levels should lead to more fat loss. However, research does not back up this theory.
A recent study found that while insulin levels dropped on a very low-carbohydrate diet, participants lost very similar amount of body fat as they did when following a high-carbohydrate diet. Low insulin levels due to a low-carbohydrate diet provided no advantage for the loss of body fat. While weight did drop much more at the start of weight loss on a low-carbohydrate diet, this was water weight, not fat (which is what happens when you restrict carbohydrate). So the theory that carbohydrates are inherently ‘fattening’ just isn’t true! You can read more about it here.
2. Carbohydrates help keep your gut bacteria healthy
Gut bacteria play a very important role in our health and well-being. To maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria, you need to do more than to eat probiotic foods or supplements. To thrive in your gastrointestinal tract, gut bacteria need to be fed – and what do they eat? They eat fermentable carbohydrate. Carbohydrate foods which contain dietary fibre provide a food source for your gut bacteria – they ferment what we don’t digest for their own food source. Cutting out high-fibre carbohydrate foods ultimately cuts down the amount of food source for good bacteria – not what we want.
3. Quality carbohydrates are nutritious and add variety
Obviously not all carbohydrates are created equal. A bag of lollies is completely different nutritionally to an apple. A bowl of sugary refined cereal is different to a bowl of porridge. But wholefood carbohydrates including fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains all provide a range of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants and dietary fibre that provide the nutrients we require to be well.
While we can survive without carbohydrate, there’s no reason to exclude good-quality carbohydrate foods from our diet when they can provide so many benefits. And in general, a more varied diet provides a better range of nutrients. Let’s not forget that carbohydrates can taste pretty good too!
More often than not, cutting out whole food groups that we enjoy also leads to negative psychological effects on our eating behaviours. While some people are completely happy with a low-carbohydrate lifestyle, for many people, cutting carbohydrates is a sure-fire trigger for cravings and binges. Why cut out something that can be a part of a healthy diet?
There are definitely more than three reasons we shouldn’t fear carbohydrates, but hopefully these three will put your mind at ease that carbohydrates are not the baddie some people make out.
Nicola Jackson is a NZ-registered nutritionist with a passion for helping people to develop a healthier relationship with food. Nicola’s blog Eat Well NZ tells you why you don’t need to quit foods, follow rules, or go to the extreme to be healthy. Her blog showcases a balanced approach to eating well, with plenty of healthy recipes and other tips on nutrition, fitness and wellness. You can also find Nicola on Facebook and Instagram.