the truth about carbs

The Truth About Carbs by Dietician Laura Clark

It’s an honour to welcome back my monthly columnist, dietician Laura Clark to the blog where she demystifies common misconceptions on food and nutrition, helping us to live smart and be healthy (#livesmartbehealthy).

Laura Clark

Over to Laura for the truth about carbs-

the truth about carbs

With countless celebrities and self- proclaimed ‘diet’ gurus voicing opinion the world of nutrition and diet has never been a more confused or controversial one. What should you do and who should you trust?!

Ultimately ask for evidence and here I provide some to hopefully answer some common misconceptions.

What is the best way to lose weight?

Firstly, what are you trying to achieve? The issue I have with some so called ‘experts’ is their desire to make one size fit all, frequently prescribing hard core diet regimes, alongside inner core exercises!

They talk frequently about the need to strengthen the body but what about strengthening the mind?

Unrealistic diet plans, not tailored to the individual will do nothing, other than set someone up to fail, knocking their confidence in their ability to lose weight further.

The reality is there is a huge difference in the attention that needs to be paid to macronutrient percentages, avoidance of certain food groups at certain meals etc. in an ‘athlete’ looking at the finer points of body composition and cellular adaptation versus someone looking to improve their health, lose weight and most importantly keep it off!

Do we really need carbs?

The simple answer is yes!! It’s the body’s preferred fuel – our muscles are geared up to convert it to energy and our brain can’t survive without it. Metabolic processes are in place to make carbohydrate if you don’t eat enough of it – otherwise you die!

That doesn’t mean these metabolic processes should be relied upon because carbs are supposedly evil and out to get us all. Very low carb diets (under 70g per day) force your body to use fat or protein as a fuel – this is not a good long term, sustainable weight management strategy.

I could drone on about the benefits of wholegrains for heart health, bowel health, cancer prevention etc. etc. and B vitamins for energy conversion and mental resilience but I won’t. Fibre requirements (following enough research to sink a ship) are now set at 30g per day.

You can eat your body weight in kale but you’re not going to hit that target unless you eat wholegrain carbs.

Those that shun carbohydrates completely are at potential risk of nutritional deficiencies and have probably already fallen asleep reading this because they’re so tired.

Is carb just the same as sugar?

Carb comes in many forms and its complexity is also its downfall as many tarnish all carbs with the

same brush. Simple sugars occur both naturally in fruit and dairy products but are also added to a plethora of foods to enhance taste, texture and shelf life. These added ‘free sugars’ carry little else with them apart from quick release energy.

More complex carbohydrates with ‘longer chains’ and ‘bonds’ or those naturally found in whole fruit and dairy (not fruit juice) carry other valuable nutrients with them – fibre, B vitamins and calcium to name a few.

Do carbs make you fat?

Over simplification of metabolic regulation from people who perhaps don’t understand it draws this conclusion. An excess of calories makes you fat regardless of where those calories have come from.

Carbohydrates cause insulin to be released which allows them to travel into your cells where they are converted to energy.

In controlled amounts (defined as one quarter to one third of your plate per meal) carbohydrate provides you with the energy you need to function. Insulin can get on and do its thing whilst you relish in the benefits to satiety and health that higher fibre and wholegrain choices give you. For the record, insulin doesn’t then hang around causing trouble in your blood stream making you fat!

Are there any exceptions?

Yes, for those who have type 2 diabetes or other conditions in which their insulin function is impaired then there are benefits to controlling carbohydrate quantities – this does not mean cutting it out or being extremely restrictive though. Even in these conditions a quarter of a plate serve would still be appropriate.

Should I avoid carb in order to burn fat?

If you exercise fasted over a period of time, with a lack of carbohydrate reserves to draw on, the body gradually adapts to burning fat. In training, Tour de France cyclists go out for long rides (where carb needs are high), with NO carb to eat at all. This forces the body to adapt and burn fat as a fuel (providing they protect their protein needs) and as such they create adaptation at cellular level. This allows their bodies to burn different fuels to survive the gruelling event.

What fuel the body burns during exercise does not translate into weight loss. Just because you have burnt fat as a fuel during a workout this doesn’t mean you will lose body fat unless you are in a calorie deficit.

In all honesty you can ‘cycle’ your carbs if you want, leave them out at certain meals if you want, avoid them on certain days if you want. If that helps you to control your overall portion size then great because ultimately it is that that makes the big difference. But if a lack of complex carbs at lunch makes you head to the vending machine by 3pm or an omelette at breakfast makes the biscuit tin at 11am seem irresistible, then you may want to rethink.

So what’s the bottom line?

Balanced meals and sensible portions are the way forward for many but that doesn’t make a very catchy media headline. The classic calories in, calories out equation will never change. Having an understanding of your physiology as well as the root cause of your eating behaviours is your best weapon.

All this theory discussed above was applied to the contributors of the new BBC 1 show ‘Lose Weight For Love’ – what I loved about working on this show was the combination of physiological and psychological approaches to help people achieve a new relationship with food. From working through body image concerns, to rewiring the brain to like vegetables, to exercising the smart way and eating in a balanced portion controlled way, the subject was tackled from all angles.

Tune in on the 18th May 8pm BBC1 for 4 weeks to see how they all got on.

Keep up to date with Laura’s site, blog, FBTwitter and Instagram.

If you want to see me or any other registered dietitian for advice check out

Read more of Laura’s posts here: How to Lose Weight as a Busy Mama, Food Assumptions and How They Affect Their Children, and Confessions of a Dietitian Mum: What I Actually Feed My Children.

Photo of Laura © Laura Clark.

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