Carbs: yes, no or maybe?

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

No-carb? Low-carb? ALL THE CARBS?

What do you eat?

There was a time not so long ago that no-carb was the standard dietary dogma trotted out when it came to weight-loss.

“Waiter, please take away the bread basket!”

That eased off for a while as diets like Atkins and South Beach (evenutally) lost momentum, but now, the no- or low-carb way of eating has exploded again, triggering vociferous debate amongst health professionals – not least when it comes to discussions around insulin resistance, obesity and type 2 diabetes. The arguments revolve around whether low-carb is the answer, or low-fat, or perhaps just very low calorie. Western medicine can’t seem to decide. The NHS announced at the end of last year that it was rolling out very low-calorie programmes for diabetics in an attempt to get their blood sugar levels under control, but it’s actually low-fat, low-cal AND low carb. There is, however, considerable research exploring whether reducing carbohydrate intake alone can produce a reversible impact on type 2 diabetes and the studies, including on humans (i.e. not just on mice), are persuasive. So, saying no to that bread basket may be advice you hear from your GP in the not-too-distant future.

Nutritional science is 50 shades of grey (without the sex) – research can be interpreted to suit most ideologies, but there are some irrefutable facts and one is that carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy. Simply put, carbs are broken down into glucose, which is a source of fuel. When you haven’t eaten for too long and you feel a bit dizzy or grumpy, that’s your body’s call for glucose. But which carbs are best for YOU?

Here’s another question: when you think of carbohydrates, what do you picture? I’d guess potatoes, bread, pasta and rice. These are all carbs, yes, but so are fruit and vegetables, wholefoods, like pulses, and whole grains, like oats.

And there are also categories of carbs – refined, unrefined, unprocessed, processed and the newly crowned ultra-processed. (Processed means that a food has had ingredients added to it. Ultra-processed is food that is significantly changed from its original state, with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives and/or artificial colours added. In case you were wondering.)

If you have been advised to lose weight or change your diet because you are pre-diabetic, reducing your carbohydrate intake is one way to shift those pounds and make a dent in high blood sugar levels. However, sustaining a low-carb diet can be challenging beyond a few months, and the key is to find a way of eating that is sustainable so that the weight stays off, and your blood sugar remains stable.

Another problem for those following low-carb diets for long periods of time is low intake of fibre. With the discussion raging about whether low-carb is necessary, the importance of fibre has been slightly lost. The government advises that we get 30g of fibre a day. Most people, we are told, aren’t getting close to that. There are many, many different types of fibre. Fruit and vegetables are important, ABSOLUTELY, but wholefoods are too, which brings us back to carbohydrates.

When it comes to the carbs row, we can all agree that those that are highly refined are best avoided as much as possible. And remember, insulin resistance – when your body stops responding to insulin, which can lead to diabete - is also affected by stress and sleep, so relaxing and resting is vital for our health too.

Taking certain foods out of our diet is one approach to eating, but our focus might be better placed on what more we can add in. I’m talking about foods to help us feel full and energised. This is about variety and diversity and there is still scope for dietary variations. The basics are probably familiar to you: opt for brown rice instead of white rice; whole-wheat pasta instead of white pasta; incorporate pulses in to your diet – they’re cheap and versatile. Ditch the sugary cereal and buy porridge oats – they’re cheaper and more nutritious.

There is a dizzying barrage of information everywhere on what we should eat. Social media is where the clamour is loudest. I’m a nutritional therapist, so I’m part of that. I advise, guide or suggest – but I do so with no judgement and in full knowledge that there is no such thing as a perfect diet and that our food choices can be determined by many things, including socio-economic factors beyond our control.

Also, what works for you, may not work for someone else. You may feel better without grains in your diet; your best mate may feel better when she avoids pulses and your sister may be able to eat absolutely anything and feel brilliant. If you’re not sure how to eat to feel YOUR best, get some advice. Excluding food groups for any length of time should not be undertaken without professional guidance. A BANT-registered nutritional therapist can support you as you explore what foods nourish YOU best.

So, in answer to the original question – carbs – yes, no maybe…?

Yes, you can eat carbs. You should eat carbs. There are many different types of carbs and your health is best served by focusing on whole grains and fruit and vegetables rather than anything that comes in a packet. It’s all about… balance. Carbs are an important part of your diet but swap out those processed “white” ones for fibre-rich and nutrient-dense equivalents as much as possible.