Brown bread and pasta on a wooden board

Reboot your carb relationship

02 Dec 2022

If you’ve bought into the idea that carb is a dirty word, it’s time to kiss and make up with our favourite food going

Many trendy diets are increasingly avoiding carbs in the pursuit of automatic weight loss – but it doesn’t have to be this way. Now it’s all about slow-release to help you manage your weight goals.

Many provide vitamins, phytochemicals (a powerful source of anti-oxidants) and enzymes – vital for all the chemical reactions in your body. And they’re the body’s preferred fuel, over protein and fat, so cut them out completely and you’ll soon find you’re running on empty.

Not all carbs are created equal

It all comes down to what type of carb you’re talking about. While they’re all broken down into sugar, the difference is in what else they bring to the table.

For refined carbohydrates like sugar, cakes, biscuits, crisps and pastries, the answer is very little. These empty calories, while total nom, are inevitably stored as fat when not burned off.

Hero carbs, on the other hand, are the complex carbohydrates such as wholegrains, wholemeal bread and pasta, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses, providing energy, vitamins and minerals. They’re also high in fibre – without them you’re likely to experience constipation.

Carbs and weight loss

That’s not to say that cutting carbs doesn’t shift the pounds. Ditching them for a few days can help kick-start weight loss, forcing the body to gobble up fat for energy.

But it’s hard to sustain long-term; when Harvard University followed 322 dieters, only 78 per cent of those on low-carbohydrate plans stuck with their diets, while nearly 90 per cent of those on a high-carb diet were still going strong after two years.

The key is to remember carbohydrates alone won’t make you fat – you’ll only gain body fat if you eat more than you use up.

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Know your limits

The NHS suggests 55 per cent of your calories come from carbohydrates, but this approach can be a little too “one size fits all”. Getting the carb balance right can be a question of trial and error and working out what’s right for you.

For sporty types, bear in mind what your goals are. What you eat before, after – and during – exercise can affect performance. Starchy food like pasta, bread and rice can be a useful energy boost before a race.

But carb-loading is a seriously abused pastime; you don’t need to stock up on them for any session of less than 90 minutes, unless it’s really high intensity. Choose wholegrain options, as well as beans and pulses to ensure you’re getting the energy, fibre and nutrients to get the most from your training.

Addicted to carbs

A New Zealand study found that refined, simple carbohydrates are highly addictive – foods made largely from refined sugar and flour light up the same pleasure centres in the brain as tobacco. So cutting back on refined carbs and replacing them with more nutrient-dense, complex ones is definitely wise.

The key is to avoid being overly restrictive when you’re trying to lose weight, and not to label foods as ‘bad’ as this can create food guilt issues. Instead, have a varied diet rich in fibrous carbohydrate foods, with plenty of fruit and veg and some high-protein foods, and keep added sugar and junk food snacks to the occasional treat.

5 healthy carb hacks

  1. Substitute white pasta with vegetable pasta – you could start by introducing it half and half. 
  2. Popcorn is a great snack substitute for crisps.
  3. Hummus is a good source of healthy carbs from chickpeas. Serve it with wholemeal pitta bread or raw veggies for an added health boost.
  4. Use healthy grains in your favourite meals, lentils curry, for example, is a delicious combination.
  5. Use sweet potatoes in mash instead of white ones – they taste just as delicious on top of veggie shepherd’s pie.

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