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The Truth About Carbs

by Joyce Haddad - May 11, 2016

The truth about the infamous ‘carbs’

In the 1990’s, or even before, carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ started getting a really bad rep. People started cutting them out of their diets in aim to lose extreme weight in a short time. The ‘carbs are bad’ mantra has left so many people confused about carbohydrates and their importance to our health. Still to this day, people don’t know how much carbs they should eat, or if they can even eat them at all. 

So, if you want some help diminishing some of the confusion about carbs, read on..

What even are carbs?

Carbs (short for: carbohydrates) are one of the 3 main macronutrients that exist, so they are a very important source of energy for our body. This macronutrient is the preferred source of energy for our brain, but it is also used to fuel all other cells in our body (like our muscles). So, you may already be realising that we literally cannot live without carbs.

There are three main types of carbs: sugar, starch, and fibre. Although sugar has also been getting a bad rep recently, it is actually a natural product. Natural sugar is found in fruit, honey, milk and some vegetables. Another type of sugar is ‘added sugar’ (sugarcane, palm/coconut sugar, raw sugar, etc.) and this is found in well… almost 70% of packaged products. Natural sugar is completely fine to consume as part of a balanced diet, while ‘added sugar’ should be used minimally. 

Starch and fibre are very important types of carbs as well, as they provide a slow and steady release of energy in our body, helping blood glucose control, while also triggering a mechanism to help us eat less. 

So, why do we need carbs?

As I said, carbs are the preferred source of energy for one of our largest organs: our brain. Carbs also provide energy for all the cells in our body to help us function normally. Vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and dairy are important food sources to include in our diet, and they are all a source of carbs. The fibre in these foods is important for good bowel health, reduced cholesterol levels, and reduced risks of some cancers. Many people are not getting the recommended 30g of fibre in their diet, as we are eating to many processed and refined products. Which takes me to…

What carbs should I be eating?

Cakes, white bread, chocolates, biscuits, soft drinks/cordials/fruit drinks are high in sugar and calories, and are known to increase the risk of tooth decays, contribute to unhealthy weight gain and related lifestyle diseases. So, these are the carbs that should be eaten very minimally, or none at all.

The good guys: vegetables, legumes, dairy and fruit provide an array of nutrients that improve our health and should be eaten frequently; they sometimes even help reverse the onset of some diseases! 

How much should I be eating?

Depending on your age, gender, and activity levels, the recommended serves of carbs vary from person to person. On average, carbohydrates should count for 50% of our daily intake, which means most of the food we eat should be a source of carbs. So, 4 – 5 serves of grains, 5 – 6 serves of vegetables, 2 – 3 serves of dairy/alternatives and 2 serves of fruit are recommended for optimal health (and 2 serves of meats/meat alternatives for protein). From this, you can see how important carbohydrates are – they belong in 4 different food groups!! 

“But when I cut carbs I lose weight… So carbs must be bad!”

It’s not that simple. Here’s the secret… After we eat carbs, they are broken down and stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver. Each gram of glycogen is stored with 3 – 4 grams of water. Generally, our body will hold around 600g of glycogen – that’s holding 2.5 L of water with it! So when you cut carbs from your diet, what’s happening in the first few days is those glycogen stores are being washed-out with a lot of water, so your weight (that’s water-weight) is going to decrease, and the number on the scales is going to drop. This is the big ‘weight loss’ people experience after cutting out carbs.

However, once these glycogen stores are diminished, weight loss will inevitably slow down. More than often, this is when people will give up and re-introduce carbs into their diet. When carbs get re-introduced, what happens? You guessed it, the weight will stack back on just as quickly as it came off, but that’s actually just the glycogen and water being stored again by the body. So it is not fat that gets gained back on, it is water weight – which is why some people may feel uncomfortable and thus blame carbs on ‘inflammation’ (by the way, “carbs cause inflammation” is the biggest nonsense I’ve ever heard). 

And so my friends, this cycle of cutting carbs, losing weight, weight plateauing, re-introducing carbs, putting on weight, and cutting carbs out again, is the most harmful thing you can do to your body. This doesn’t happen because “carbs are evil”, it happens because that’s just how the body works. Having consistent intake of good sources of carbs (vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, fruit and dairy) will ensure your body is getting the amazing nutrients it needs from carbohydrates, without the need of feeling guilty. 

How do I lose weight then...

If you really want to lose weight, it is important to do it in a healthy way, while your body is still receiving all the nutrients it needs. Here are some effective weight loss tips you can try:

  • Eat a healthy breakfast every day.
  • Pay attention to portion sizes.
  • Tune into your hunger and fullness cues.
  • Enjoy a healthy diet that includes carbohydrate and fibre-rich foods like food listed above. They’ll fill you up and help you eat less.
  • Get moving and be physically active every day of the week.  
  • Don’t rush the process. Healthy weight loss that is sustainable for the long-term is 0.5 – 1kg per week.
  • Persistence is key. Weight loss is a process—it takes time, patience and effort.

The key is to never cut any food groups out of your diet. Your body will defeat you, and it will make you go back to eating whatever it is lacking. Control your food intake by not depleting your body of any nutrients, this way, you won’t get uncontrollable cravings and lash out on all the food. Your body is a treasure, love it, take care of it, feed it well, and watch it reward you for it.

Image Credit: gewoonbob, Flickr


Joyce Haddad

Joyce Haddad is a Qualified Dietitian/Nutritionist and Master Personal Trainer with a passion for health and wellbeing. Her aim as a health professional is to help the public make informed and REALISTIC nutritional choices and ensure everyone has a healthy relationship with their body and with food.