Carbohydrates: to eat or not to eat? It’s been one of the biggest questions in fitness and nutrition for years. My take? Oh, go on, guess. Yep, it depends… This post isn’t for the figure competitors out there who are watching every calorie and macro. That’s a whole other ball game. But for the average person who is trying to make sense of a lot of conflicting information and maybe wants to lose some weight, read on. Carbs are not your enemy and most people are miserable without them.
Look. Let’s be realistic. If you eat fruit and vegetables, and you really should be, then you are eating carbohydrates. I have no time for people claiming they are ‘carb-free’. While low carb and high fat diets have become fashionable of late, carbohydrates are an essential food group or macronutrient alongside proteins and fats, and provide necessary fuel for your muscles for physical activity, as well as helping us to metabolise fat. Carbs are our body’s preferred energy source. Even one of the biggest proponents of the no grain Paleo diet, Robb Wolf, recently published Wired to Eat, rethinking carb intake and getting readers to work out how many starchy carbs for their own individual energy needs. One size does not fit all.
A lot of people who eat the Paleo way (no grains, no dairy) report significant fat loss and attribute it to this exact style of eating. However, we cannot be certain that it’s the low carb element that creates weight or fat loss. The only thing we really know that causes the body to burn fat is maintaining a caloric deficit i.e. eating fewer calories than your body uses for energy. If you cut out starchy carbs like grains, as well as dairy, then you are removing a large potential source of calories. A lot of people on high fat diets forget how dense in calories fats are, which is why munching on handfuls of nuts, adding tablespoons of coconut oil to smoothies and having an avocado every day can stop you seeing that weight loss happen.
What I like about Paleo eating is the focus on cooking from scratch from unprocessed foods. This places a firm focus on the quality of the nutrients in your food. I don’t believe in cutting out dairy (although dairy farming conditions need addressing for sure) but being more aware of what you eat and what’s in your food is a good place to start for healthier eating overall.
This attention to food quality is where we also need to look when it comes to which carbs we eat. There’s no real nutritional value in processed cakes, poor quality bread and sugary drinks; they can be a minor part of your diet but only as occasional treats. I don’t ban anything! If you want to make carbohydrates part of your meals then go for good quality whole grains, potatoes and rice. If you’re trying to lose weight then be sure you are in that calorie deficit, or try restricting your carb intake to pre or post-exercise meals to replenish muscle glycogen and then stick to meals made from proteins, vegetables and quality fat sources the rest of the time. This can be a very helpful post-menopause strategy too, if you are finding it hard to keep the weight off. If you’re unsure about portion size, then remember that a golf ball sized amount of grains is about right or half a cup/50g of uncooked oats. We’re not talking a plate of risotto-sized portion of rice.
So the key to getting the right balance of carbs is to think about what proportion of calories they make up in your daily intake, the quality and amount of nutrients they are giving you and when you might prefer to eat them. Just don’t demonise them and certainly don’t feel you need to cut them out. I eat starchy carbs with about two meals a day as I am so active, as I feel exhausted without them, but I am careful not to over indulge on rest days, and that works for me. Experiment and see what works for you.