Carbs – what, when and why?

Carbs – the dirtiest word of the last few years. Ostracised through no carb diets, endorsed by celebrities, demonised through gluten-free diets and all round rejected by many trying to be fit and healthy.

But where did this come from? It’s easy to follow suit when our favourite and most well respected influencers start to promote a particular way of living, but I would urge you to do your research before taking on a new ‘extreme’ diet (and yes, this does include cutting out carbohydrates).

 

What are carbohydrates and why do we need them?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients required in our diet, along with protein and fats. They are our body’s preferred source of energy, providing far more ATP (unit of energy) than either protein or fats. Carbohydrates are essentially anything that isn’t a protein or fat.

Starch and sugar are the important carbohydrates in our diet. Starches are found in foods you would traditionally think of as ‘carby’, such as pasta, some vegetables and rice, and sugars are found naturally occurring in foods such as fruits and dairy products (lactose is a sugar). Fibre is found in carbohydrate and you can’t digest it – it keeps your heart and digestive system healthy.

Carbohydrates are broken down by the body into simple sugars. The more complex the carb, the more energy it takes to break it down and the less it spikes your insulin levels. Simple carbs, if not used for energy (for example by exercising), may be turned into triglycerides (if not needed by the muscles or liver), which can then be stored in fat cells.

 

So when should I eat them?

The simple answer is whenever you eat a meal! I know a lot of people are afraid of eating carbs before bed or before a certain (arbitrary) time in the evening. However, your body should be fuelled before training with carbohydrates and refuelled after training with a mixture of carbs to replenish your muscle’s glycogen (energy) stores and protein to repair damaged muscles.

Enjoy complex carbs:

  • After training to replace lost glycogen in muscles and increase nutrient transportation to them
  • In the morning to replenish glycogen stores lost overnight
  • Evening carbs aid the production of tryptophan, which can help sleep.

Simple carbs:

  • Useful if you need a quick energy hit. A fruit before a workout will help you push that little bit harder. This is why endurance athletes have energy gels whilst running – these provide the muscles with instant energy. This is useful on a run but not so much when sitting at a desk or lying in bed so choose the timing of simple carb consumption carefully.

 

Good carbs? Bad carbs?

Whilst I hate to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it can be useful to know which foods should be eaten in moderation and which should be eaten frequently. Generally, carbohydrates with lots of fibre in are great for your body, maintaining healthy digestion and helping to slow the absorption rate of sugars. These include foods such as wholemeal bread, brown/wild rice and root vegetables.

Carbs that should be limited are those that have been highly processed (the ‘simple sugars’), as these contain low fibre levels and may produce insulin spikes, creating a rollercoaster of blood sugar levels. These include goods such as cakes, biscuits and some granola. Pure sugar, as a form of carbohydrate, is the quickest to be absorbed into the bloodstream, especially when consumed without other wholesome foods. This includes some fizzy drinks, sweets and honey.

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Cake – simple carbs at their finest. Just eat them in moderation

So how much should I be eating?

Everyone needs carbohydrates everyday. There is no fixed number that works for everyone – this depends on your age, activity level, sex and a million other factors. Different things work for different people, but the important thing is to be eating enough fibre and getting enough micro as well as macronutrients. If you’re not sure if you’re getting it right, or experiencing digestion issues, visit a registered nutritionist or speak to your doctor.

There’s no one size fits all, but generally the more endurance exercise you’re doing, the more carbohydrates you should be eating. If you’re sitting at a desk all day, realistically you don’t need as many carbs as someone who has a very active job or someone who runs 10km every morning.

In all, carbs should be making up anywhere from 45-65% of your diet for the average person. If this seems like a lot to you, just remember that almost everything has some form of carbohydrate in it. Without tracking, it’s hard to get these numbers right, but including oats or wholemeal toast with breakfast, vegetables at lunch and dinner and slow release carbs with dinner can ensure that you are getting enough to provide you with sufficient energy and nutrition to fuel you through the day.

 

A nutritionist’s point of view:

I spoke to Rhiannon Lambert, Harley Street nutritionist and author of Re-Nourish: The definitive guide to optimum nutrition (which you can pre-order here for release on December 28th). Check out her Instagram and Twitter.

“Carbohydrates are a fundamental part of any diet, without them, we cannot aid our bodies performance and lift its mood. Carbohydrates – especially complex or starchy ones such as sweet potatoes – are a good source of energy and fibre, which helps your digestive system stay healthy and keeps your blood sugar levels steady. Better still, they contain all sorts of micronutrients that help to release the energy from food.

The misconception that all carbohydrates are created equal is quite simply incorrect. We benefit from the additional fibre and nutrients in wholegrain produce in comparison to the refined carbohydrates, which don’t contain as much nutritional value.

My top advice is to know your portions and to include some carbohydrate at every meal, Your balanced plate should contain protein, carbohydrate, vegetables or fruit and a small amount of good fat. For example, salmon fillet with roasted vegetables in olive oil and a portion of brown rice.

Although some people experience initial weight loss from a no-carb diet, most can’t maintain it. Fad diets don’t work; a healthy, balanced diet is the yardstick we should all be aiming for. If you want to lose weight, look at portion control and upping your exercise so that you’re burning off more calories that you eat. It’s that simple.”

 

I hope this article helps you in some way. Sometimes nutrition can seem like a bit of a minefield, but sticking to healthy, ‘real’ foods (ones you have to cook from scratch) is a great place to start.

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For a great post-workout meal, try this high protein salmon and prawn linguine

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