If you have any interest at all in health and fitness, then you will have no doubt had the “cut carbs, lose weight” mantra heavily engrained on the brain.
Traditionalists in the industry have tended to demonize carbohydrates for a variety of different reasons, which has given rise to the popular yet restrictive diets of Paleo, Keto and others.
After coming under so much fire, particularly in recent times, I thought it would be appropriate for me to share my thoughts on the topic. As an endurance athlete, I myself have a high carbohydrate intake so that I can maintain a high-volume training programme to the best of my ability. Having played around with various macronutrient proportions, I have found a close correlation between my highest level of performance and carbohydrate intake.
We all have that “no-carbs-before-Marbs” friend who won’t stop going on about how carbs are the devil and should be avoided like the plague, and advocates of the low-carb revolution will never have a normal conversation without making you feel guilty about eating a BLT. But do they actually know what carbohydrates actually are, and is their relentless ranting justified?
What actually are Carbs?!
LiveScience defines a carbohydrate as “the starches, sugars and fibre found in fruits, vegetables, grains and milk products”. For thousands of years, groups of people across the planet have survived on carbohydrate-rich diets; foods like rice and grains, for example, have served as the staple in different parts of the world.
Carbs can be broken down into three further sub-sections : sugars, starches and fibre. All three types serve a different purpose within the body, and it has long been preached that getting a good balance and variety of carb-sources is the key to good health.
However, when we consume more carbs than our body needs, it is converted and stored as fat in the body, which ultimately does lead to weight gain. This is very dependent on the amounts, though; as you will find out, it is all about balancing your intake according to your individual physiology.
Low Carb Mania
Diets that are significantly lower in carbs than your Average Joe diet are all the rage in the world of health. Fitness bloggers and ‘influencers’ on social media, alongside various scientific studies, have popularised nutritional approaches such as Ketogenic, or ‘Keto’, meaning that many people now eat higher proportions of proteins and fats whilst reducing the intake of carbohydrates. In extreme cases, this can be as low as 10% of someone’s daily intake; to put that in perspective that is just 50g of carbs every day on a 2,000kcal diet…
The reason why people think like this is due to the fact that carbohydrates, when ingested, do cause our weight to increase slightly due to water retention in the body’s muscle stores. That’s why if you weigh yourself before and after a high carb meal, you will see a marked increase.
However, this soon goes away due to being shuttled into the process of metabolism, where they are broken down and used to fuel different processes in the body. When consumed in appropriate amounts, carbohydrates are central to the everyday running of the inner workings if our body…
According to a study , the classification what constitutes a “low carb” diet is as follows:
• Very low-carbohydrate (< 10% carbohydrates) or 20-50 gm/day
• Low-carbohydrate (<26% carbohydrates) or less than < 130 gm/day
• Moderate-carbohydrate (26-44%)
• High-carbohydrate (45% or greater)
The same study describes the rationale behind low-carb diets as a method of reducing the levels of insulin in the body, thus improving the metabolic function of the heart which may induce weight loss. Put simply, this means that, in theory, reducing our carb intake causes blood sugar levels to stay relatively stable throughout the day. As a result, our bodies turn to existing fat stores for fuel, which is known as a state of ‘ketosis’ (hence the name Ketogenic).
If you do any reading or research on nutrition and diet, you are bound to come across the low-carb clan in action…
The Carb-y Truth : Complexity is Key
The rise of the Low-Carb Revolution has caused people to negate the clear fact that carbohydrates are at the centre of dietary approaches adopted by some of the healthiest populations on the planet…
Take the Okinawans, for example; a Japanese group of people whose level of public health far exceeds that of the UK. It is one of 5 ‘Blue Zones’ on the planet, which is given to groups who live exceptionally long and healthy lives, the majority of which can be attributed to their diet.
The traditional Okinawan Diet consists of a whopping 85% Carbohydrate, 6% Fat and 9 % Protein, although the more modern Okinawan way of eating is closer to 60-65% Carb. The large majority of their calories come from healthy, wholesome carb sources such as purple and orange sweet potatoes, soybean products and other low GI grains.
These sorts of carbs are complex, meaning they require more energy to breakdown into digestible molecules for the body to use. This means that, when you eat these foods, energy release is much more sustained, keeping you energised and satiated for a longer period of time.
By limiting yourself to < 30% of your total calorie intake from carbohydrate, you are missing out on the wealth of nutrients, vitamins, and health benefits that food-stuffs like vegetables, wholegrains, and legumes can offer.
For more information about making smart carbohydrate choices, check out the infographic on the right!
The Other Side : Why Keto Works
…Or more accurately, why Keto works for some people.
Weight loss ultimately comes to creating a calorie deficit, meaning that you expend more energy than you take in. It takes roughly a 3,500kcal weekly deficit, or 500kcal per day to lose 1lb of fat every week.
For some people, having a higher intake of fats helps to keep them satiated and satisfied throughout the day, and certain studies have shown that a high-fat, low-carb diet may reduce blood sugar fluctuations for some people.
Advocates of the high-fat diet use the Inuit way of eating to justify their approach. These chilly chaps dwell in the freezing cold ice-lands of Alaska, Canada and Greenland, and their traditional consisted of 75% fat, coming from sources like whale-meat and fish. This is in part due to the fact dietary fat plays a central role in maintaining body temperature in sub-zero conditions.
The fact that, traditionally, the Inuit people maintained such high levels of health despite their surrounding environment and exceedingly high intake of dietary fat, has led many to convert to HFLC diets. Pair this with a growing field of scientific studies proving the benefits of a high-fat diet, and your Average Ket-Joe has more than enough ammunition to hit you with when you start criticising his diet…
The Final Word
Ultimately I believe carbohydrates more than merit their place in the vast majority of healthy diets, particularly those of the more complex persuasion. Despite all the hate, carbs play such a central role in recovery, performance and mental readiness when it comes to exercise that it could be quite dangerous omitting carbs from your diet completely. That being said, it is important to consider the type of carbs you are consuming as well as what time of day you eat them in order to reap their full benefits.
That being said, I will stress that THERE IS NO “ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL” DIET. The best way for one to structure their diet is that which promotes optimal health and allows you to reach your goal in a sustainable way. Whether this would be High-carb, Low-fat or low-carb, high-fat is totally dependent on an individual’s physiology ,dietary preferences, and lifestyle.
I can assure you, though, that CARBS ARE NOT INHERENTLY FATTENING, so don’t believe Commander Keto in the corner berating the idea of having porridge for breakfast….