After years of seeing fat as a dietary demon, carbs have now taken the spotlight, and low-carb diets such as the Atkins, Keto and Paleo have become something of a trend, with people swearing that shunning carbs helps them to hit their goals. Most of us will have friends who fret about putting on a few pounds when they eat a bowl of pasta. Yet, do carbs really deserve to be demonised? Are they created equally, and should we ever cut a food group out of our diets?
Here is our lowdown on carbs, and why we need them to keep firing on all cylinders…
What Are Carbs?
First things first - to understand whether or not we need carbs, we need to understand what they are. Carbs are one of three macronutrients (the other two being protein and fats), which all help our bodies to carry out its every day tasks. Carbs are our body’s go-to source of energy.
One of the main things to know is that all carbs aren’t created equally. There are two kinds of carbs: complex carbs and simple carbs, and it’s this you need to think about when it comes to your diet.
Simple carbs are generally found in processed, overly-refined foods (think white bread, cakes, pastries) and are made up of simple sugars, which are broken down and absorbed very quickly by our bodies. They also contain very little fibre. These simple carbs can make our blood sugar levels a little haywire, ultimately causing weight gain, energy crashes and even insulin resistance in the long-term.
Complex carbs on the other hand are much higher in nutrients and fibre. They are found in foods such as whole fruits and veg, as well as whole grains, legumes and beans.
What Happens When We Restrict Carbs?
Unfortunately, when we restrict carbs, or cut them out entirely, our bodies can suffer as a result - especially if you are active. While some of us may initially lose weight by going carb-free, there can be negative effects long-term, including a slowed-down metabolism, lower levels of certain hormones and higher levels of stress hormones.
First up, restricting carbs can ultimately end up affecting our thyroids and therefore our metabolisms. For a metabolism that’s firing on all cylinders, our body needs to create a hormones called T3, which works to manage blood glucose levels and metabolic activity. However, some studies show that, when we eat few or no carbs (as well as a low-calorie diet), T3 levels plummet, meaning our thyroid and metabolisms are thrown out of synch. More info can be found here.
The haywire hormones don’t stop there, though! If you’re exercising often and eating little to no carbs, your testosterone levels can fall while your cortisol (AKA the “stress hormone”) levels can soar. This can cause us to store excess fat and experience mood swings. Detail is here.
If you’re looking to build muscles, you need carbs as well as protein! While protein helps to rebuild damaged muscle tissue, our bodies need carbs as they help to fill muscles with glycogen. The takeaway? If you don’t fuel your bodies properly after working out, you will fail to build that longed-for muscle.
Eating foods that are high in fibre (such as fruit and veg, and whole grains) is crucial for a happy, healthy tum and digestive system. Fibre keeps our bowels regular and also helps to feed the “good” bacteria in our tummies. These good bacteria are needed for our bodies to thrive - they help us to absorb nutrients, boost our mood and immunity, regulate appetite and even help us to eliminate waste. Therefore, we need to enjoy carbs to keep our micro biome healthy!
Eating plenty of complex carbs can help us to stay happy - and even boost the quality of our sleep! Our bodies need carbs to help process the amino acid tryptophan in the brain. Tryptophan is converted to sleep-inducing melatonin and serotonin, which also happens to be our body’s very own feel-good chemical. In short, if you want to feel happier, don’t ditch the carbs!
Eliminate Brain Fog
When we eat carbs, they are broken down into glucose, which our bodies than use as fuel and energy. Our brains need this glucose to help us to concentrate, recall information and even make decisions. In one study, women placed on a low-carb diet scored worse on memory tests than those on a higher carb diet. Find out more on this study here.
So...What Should I Eat?
In short, aim for balance! Enjoy each of the three macronutrients - carbs, fats and protein - throughout the day (and, ideally, with each meal) for a healthy, thriving body. If you struggle to find that balance, then consider chatting things through with a qualified nutritional therapist.
Aim to eat complex carbs every single day - think sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, and oats (our Flapjack mixes are loaded with good carbs, including quinoa and oats) and veggies and fruits with their skins on. In the meantime, aim to ditch the simple carbs, such as those found in white bread, processed and refined foods, pastries, cakes and sweets.