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Why we should keep the carbs

It's widely accepted that processed carbohydrates, such as white bread and pasta, can contribute to weight gain and its associated diseases, doctors are increasingly concerned about a trend for excluding all carbs " even healthier wholegrains, where the grain is left intact and not processed.

It's widely accepted that processed carbohydrates, such as white bread and pasta, can contribute to weight gain and its associated diseases, doctors are increasingly concerned about a trend for excluding all carbs " even healthier wholegrains, where the grain is left intact and not processed.

Published Apr 23, 2015


London – How do you feel when you’re eating bread or pasta?

If the answer is ‘guilty’, you’re not alone. Half of British women experience ‘carb guilt’, a recent survey found – with one in ten admitting that eating carbohydrates makes them feel bad about themselves ‘all day’.

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In recent years, carbs have been vilified for causing obesity, type 2 diabetes and even cancer and dementia. Once considered an essential staple of our diets, providing energy, sustenance and vital nutrients, they have become one of our most feared food groups.

Many of us are trying to minimise our intake, with some switching to plans such as the Paleo diet, which recommend eating like a hunter-gatherer and avoiding grains.

Carb exclusion has even been endorsed by some doctors and dietitians, as well as celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to stars of reality TV show The Only Way Is Essex, whose mantra before holidays in Marbella is: ‘No Carbs Before Marbs’.

But while it’s widely accepted that processed carbohydrates, such as white bread and pasta, can contribute to weight gain and its associated diseases, doctors are increasingly concerned about a trend for excluding all carbs – even healthier wholegrains, where the grain is left intact and not processed.

People who do this could suffer from a lack of energy, mood swings, poor concentration and gut problems– and may even put on weight.

Experts also warn that shunning an entire food group is unsustainable, and can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.

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Carbohydrates are chains of sugar molecules found in a wide range of foods.

Simple carbohydrates, such as fructose (sugar found in fruit), are made of just one sugar molecule. Sucrose (table sugar) and lactose (the sugar found in milk and dairy products) contain two sugar molecules.

Longer chains of sugar molecules are found within ‘complex’ or starchy carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. These are the foods most of us mean when talking about ‘carbs’.

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The right carbs can help you lose weight


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Those who shun carbs say they are bad for us because they convert into sugar in the body, and can cause weight gain because we store excess sugar as fat.

But while many experts agree that overweight people often do eat too many carbs, they also say that these foods have been unfairly demonised.

‘Carbs are seen by many as the “devil” food, but any dietitian will tell you they are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet – the general guidance is they should make up a third of our intake,’ says Helen Bond, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

‘They are a ready source of fuel for the body. Cutting them out can cause headaches, tiredness and lethargy. You won’t be able to perform so well during exercise and concentration is likely to be affected, too, because carbohydrates also fuel the brain.’

She adds that where people go wrong is in treating all carbs as the same.

Many starchy carbohydrates, including oats, rice and wheat, are wholegrains, which provide fibre and important nutrients, such as B vitamins.

The problem comes when wholegrains are processed - for example, to make white bread, pasta or rice. This removes the husk of the grain seed, which can mean its sugar is absorbed more quickly.

‘These foods have a higher glycaemic index (GI) – a measure of the rate at which sugar is digested,’ says Bond. ‘That means you’re more likely to have a sudden rise in blood sugar, followed by a sudden drop, and then feel like snacking.’

Processed carbohydrates also contain less fibre and fewer nutrients.

Carbohydrates with added sugar and fat – such as biscuits, cakes and crisps – are especially high in calories and release sugar quickly, which can lead to weight gain if you don’t burn off the excesses.

And this is what’s putting people off processed and – wrongly – unprocessed carbs.

But going carb-free could, in fact, make you eat more and gain weight.

Helen Bond says carb-free diets can be difficult to stick to as carbohydrates – particularly wholegrain ones, such as brown rice or wholemeal bread – contain fibre, which provides feelings of fullness.

Indeed, some research suggests that diets containing carbohydrates are the best for losing weight.

One study of more than 4,000 people published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that people who ate the most carbs were 40 percent less likely to be obese and overweight, compared with people who ate the least.

The researchers said a diet where carbohydrates made up 47 to 64 percent of total calorie intake was the most protective.


We need more fibre – not less


Fibre is also important for digestion, and has been shown to protect against heart disease and some cancers. Researchers at the Harvard Public School of Health, in the US, recently reported that a diet rich in wholegrains is linked to longevity.

The average British diet already lacks fibre. Some 72 percent of men and 87 percent of women do not meet the recommended intake for adults of 18g per day, according to the government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

‘It’s difficult to get enough fibre once you remove carbohydrates – and without enough of it, you’ll certainly become constipated,’ says Professor Peter Whorwell, a gastroenterologist at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester.

‘This is not only unpleasant, but can cause digestive problems and conditions such as haemorrhoids. There is evidence fibre has a protective effect against colon cancer, too. So a diet that causes constipation does not sound like a good idea.’

You can get fibre from brassica vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, but ‘the downside is it gives rather smelly wind’, he adds.

So, just how did we become so mistrustful of carbohydrates?

Helen Bond says this comes from confusion over the difference between simple or processed carbs (such as white bread, cakes and biscuits) and complex ones (such as potatoes and wholegrains).

‘It’s the processed carbohydrates we need to be concerned about,’ she says. ‘I see no problem in cutting simple [processed] carbs right down in favour of wholegrains, which are better for you and your digestive system and keep you fuller for longer.’

Professor Whorwell agrees. He says: ‘Simple carbs aren’t very satisfying. Those who use them as a food source end up eating too much because their effect is short-lived.

‘That’s where the demonisation of carbs has come from.’


Fat is better for energy, says one GP


Some proponents of low-carb diets such as the Paleo plan claim that carbohydrates aren’t necessary for energy and that fat and protein are, in fact, better sources of fuel.

Dr David Unwin, a Merseyside GP, gave up carbs – even wholegrain ones – two years ago. He’d devised a low-carb diet to help patients with diabetes lose weight, and tried it out of solidarity and curiosity.

He found it so beneficial that he has kept it up, avoiding all bread, pasta, potatoes and rice.

‘I’m not saying everyone should do it,’ he says. ‘If you’re slim and healthy, there’s no need to interfere with your diet.

‘But it surprised me how much better I felt – much less tired. I now need one hour less sleep a night.’

Dr Unwin is a keen runner and says that, without carbs, he can run faster and for longer, challenging the widely held belief that athletes need carbohydrates for energy.

‘Our bodies can’t store much carbohydrate. That’s why runners “hit the wall” and need to snack on energy gels and sweets,’ he says. ‘I used to need those. Now, I find I don’t need any. I think it’s because I’m running on fat, which doesn’t run out.’

But Catherine Collins, principal dietitian at St George’s Hospital, in South-West London, is sceptical.

‘A very low-carb, high-fat diet induces a condition called ketosis, where the body starts to convert fat and protein into fatty acids called ketones for energy, at the same time attempting to make blood sugar from some proteins,’ she says.

‘Ketosis alters the pH of the blood, making it more acidic. The Paleo community says that’s a good thing but, in fact, we know that the body likes the blood to be slightly alkaline – that’s the ideal state for almost every bodily process.

‘Why would you want to pursue a diet that, long term, makes it harder for natural body processes to work effectively? It’s a ridiculous concept.’ Collins adds that diets such as the Paleo plan tend to involve filling up on animal protein – yet high red meat consumption has been linked to bowel cancer.

Reducing your carbohydrates, especially processed carbohydrates, would help an overweight person to lose weight – but, she adds, so would reducing fat.

‘What matters is eating fewer calories than you burn. In the long term, it’s better to do that in a nutritionally balanced way.’

Peter Whorwell agrees. ‘It’s so important to have balance. Fat, protein and carbohydrate are the ideal combination,’ he says.

Aside from nutritional concerns, experts say that carb-free diets (as with any diet that bans a major food group) create unhealthy relationships with food, which make them unsustainable in the long term.

Jane Ogden, professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey, says such diets have become popular as people seek a simple solution to weight loss.

‘It used to be fat – now it’s carbohydrates and sugar,’ she says. ‘It’s driven by people trying to find a black-and-white solution – so that rather than eating too much, it must be something in the food that’s making them fatter.’

While a life without carbs sounds miserable to most of us, Professor Ogden says cutting out a food group is often more appealing to dieters than simply reducing their overall calorie intake.

‘Doing things in moderation might sound like the simplest way to lose weight, but it’s actually quite hard – because you have to have a little of something and then stop.

‘That’s why losing weight is harder than giving up smoking. You don’t ever have to smoke again, but you still have to eat.’

Ultimately, she says cutting out carbs is doomed to fail. ‘It might work in the short term but, in the long term, it doesn’t do you any good. When we ban foods, we encode them as evil and special – and that’s when we start to crave them.’


Case study

Michelle Pyle tried a low-carb diet three years ago. She wanted to lose the weight she’d gained after having her children – at her heaviest, she was 15st (about 95kg).

Breakfast would be scrambled eggs, for lunch she’s have a chicken salad and dinner would be meat or fish with roasted vegetables.

“I did lose weight – about 6 lb in the first week – but it was hell,’ says Michelle, 32, who lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and their three children, aged 13, 11 and eight. ‘The main thing was the horrific headaches, which started the day after I began the diet.

‘I’d tried other diets before, such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World - they hadn’t worked for me, but I had never had headaches like this.

‘They made me really snappy and my husband started getting fed up with it.

‘When you’re the mother of three children, it’s not a good way to be.’

Even though Michelle replaced carbohydrates with lots of vegetables and protein, such as meat and fish, she says she never felt full after a meal. ‘I was tired and my sleep was broken - probably because I was going to bed hungry - and never woke up feeling refreshed.’

She gave up the diet after a month because of the headaches, but says it had a long-lasting effect on her relationship with food.

‘It has instilled this idea in me that carbs are bad,’ she says. ‘I’m trying to retrain my brain but, three years on, I still feel guilty whenever I eat them.

‘I’ll have a roast dinner and allow myself only two small potatoes - but then I’m feeling hungry again by the evening.’

Last year, Michelle signed up with a personal trainer and started a more balanced weight-loss plan. She is now a healthy 9 st 6 lbs (about 60kg). ‘It’s not practical to miss out on an entire food group,’ she says.

‘Moderation is so much better. If I’ve had a big exercise day and want a jacket potato, I’ll have one.

‘My husband is much happier because I’ll go out with him and treat myself to a steak and chips.’

Michelle now believes carb-exclusion diets are not only impractical and boring, but can set up emotional issues with food.

She says: ‘People who are overweight already have some sort of an unhealthy relationship with food - so why add another one?’


The Super Carbs

SWEET POTATOES Unlike white potatoes, these count towards your five a day because of their nutrient content.

QUINOA This grain is a great vegetarian source of protein – use as an alternative to rice.

PORRIDGE A low-GI breakfast will keep you fuller for longer.

RYE BREAD Has four times the fibre of white bread and 20 per cent fewer calories.

PEARL BARLEY Low-calorie and high in immunity-boosting selenium and fibre, this grain is shown to lower cholesterol.

TORTILLA Corn and flour types are considered low GI – good alternatives to white bread.

SPELT Contains less gluten than wheat, so may be better for those with a sensitivity. Look for spelt bread or pasta, or use instead of rice in risotto.

BROWN RICE A Harvard School of Public Health study found switching white rice to brown lowers risk of type 2 diabetes.

BLACK BEANS Legumes provide fibre, protein and carbohydrate. Counts towards your five a day.

SHREDDED WHEAT These wheat grains are a good fibre source, with no added sugar or salt.

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