Thirty years ago, fat was the main diet demon and carbs fuelled the day with toast or cereal the standard breakfast, a simple sandwich at lunchtime. Back then, dinner wasn't dinner unless a potato or some rice or pasta graced the plate.
Now there are few food groups as tainted as the humble carbohydrate, especially when it comes to weight loss. So while many an extreme diet bans carbs completely, are they really that bad for us? Are some better than others? And how can you strike the right balance for you?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macro-nutrientsthat give the body energy (the other two are protein and fat). Carbs are primarily found in plant-based foods, including bread, rice, breakfast cereal, fruits, starchy vegetables and sugars and offer 17kJ (4 calories) of energy per gram.
The simplest form of carbohydrate is glucose, and carbohydrates range from mixes of simple sugars to hundreds of individual sugars that form more complex carbohydrates, such as breads and cereals.
Carbohydrates can also be grouped according to their glycaemic index. The glycaemic index refers to how quickly or how slowly a carbohydrate releases glucose into the bloodstream. Low GI foods such as wholegrains release the glucose relatively slowly, compared to higher GI foods such as white bread and rice.
Generally speaking, natural sources of carbohydrate, as found in whole, natural foods like fruit, starchy vegetables, and legumes, and wholegrains such as oats, barley and quinoa, are the best carbs to include in the diet on a daily basis.
When carbs are consumed as wholefoods, we get the added benefit other key nutrients, including fibre, vitamins and minerals. Wholegrain and low GI natural sources of carbohydrate are also far less likely to be overconsumed the way refined carbohydrates found in processed cereals, white breads, snack food, biscuits, juices and sugars are.
The amount of carb you need will depend largely on how active you are. If you spend all day on your feet and are already quite slim, you will need more than someone who sits all day does minimal exercise. And similarly, on days you train for an hour or more, you will need more than on a sedentary day when you barely leave the house.
Without shifting to a complete 'low carb' or keto approach, where carbs equate to less than 20 per cent of total calories or just 50-80g of total carbohydrates per day, the average adult will require 30-50 per cent of their daily calories from carbohydrates (you can see this is a wide range), equating to roughly 80-200g of carbohydrates each day, or 1-3 half cup serves at each meal.
As carbohydrate is the primary fuel for the muscles, it is a common belief that eating fewer carbs means that you automatically burn a greater amount of fat. While this is somewhat true, as the body prefers to burn carbs in the form of glucose as its primary energy source, if carbs are restricted to a great enough extent, even though the body will shift to burning fat it will also slow metabolic rate over time. This means that initially you will get good results from a strict low-carb approach, but over time metabolic rate will reduce and the body will begin burning fewer calories as a result. This effect can be observed in individuals who have great success initially using a low-carb diet but who find it difficult to maintain once they return to their usual carbohydrate intake.
The strongest sign that you're eating too much carbohydrate is if you're gaining weight, or not losing weight despite making a concerted effort to eat less and exercise. The easiest way to count your own carbs is to use an online monitoring app such as 'myfitnesspal'.
While extremely low-carb diets, or less than 50g of total carbs a day will support ketosis and rapid weight loss, for those not in keto, it is possible to eat too few carbs for the amount of activity you are doing.
Signs your carbs may be a little on the low side include constant sugar cravings and hunger and an inability to lose weight despite eating less and exercising more. This may suggest you need a little more carbs to successfully burn body fat. The minimum amount of carbs someone not in keto will require is roughly 80-100g plus another 20-30g for every hour of exercise.
Naturally every food that contains carbohydrates has a different amount and generally larger serves for example, larger slices of bread have more than smaller slices. As a general rule of thumb, cup of carbohydrate or one piece of fruit has about 20g of carbs per serve. For a more accurate analysis, simply check 'carbs per serve' on nutrition panels or use a monitoring program such as 'myfitnesspal'.
So carbs are not bad for us, rather it tends to be the types of carbs we commonly choose or are served. Large slices of sourdough or Turkish bread, the white rice in sushi and large serves of noodles and fries at night are when we get our carbs wrong.
On the other hand, fruit, vegetables and controlled portions of wholegrains have plenty to offer the key is to stick to natural, whole unprocessed carbs when you can. And if your goal is weight loss, keep a close eye on how much total carbohydrate you are consuming each day.
Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.
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Everything you need to know about carbs - 9Honey