by Luke Cafferty
In the health and fitness industry we love to follow trends. While this does generally hold true for exercise, I believe it is especially so for dietary advice.
One such trend that has taken the industry by storm over the last few years is the resurgence of the high fat and low carbohydrate diet. This includes the increasing popularity of ketogenic diets, paleo style diets, and the Atkins diet.
Related: Low-carb Diets for Diabetics
As a result, we have seen some serious backlash, mostly through the pure and utter demonization of all carbohydrates.
More recently (in conjunction with the rising popularity of low carbohydrate diets), carbohydrates have been described as the root cause of obesity, metabolic diseases (such as diabetes), and cardiovascular disease.
But despite recommendations of low carb eating running rampant in the health and fitness industry, the dietary guidelines still recommend that we get approximately 50% of our daily energy intake from carbohydrates!
With such conflicting information it can be extremely difficult to make a well informed decision on dietary carbohydrates, and their influence on health.
But fortunately, I am here to help.
And a bit of spoiler: When it comes to carbohydrates, it is not as black and white as what some people would have you believe.
Carbohydrates are one of the key macro-nutrients that we obtain through diet (in conjunction with fats and protein). Carbohydrates can be separated into three categories;
Sugars: These are short chained carbohydrates found in foods (such as glucose and fructose). These carbohydrates are broken down easily and absorbed into the bloodstream at a very rapid rate.
Starches: These are long chains of glucose molecules put together. Starches are commonly found in vegetables, and are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream at a very slow rate.
Fiber: Fiber is a form of carbohydrate found in whole foods that cannot be digested by the body, and as such, passes through the digestive system almost completely untouched.
Carbohydrates provide the body with energy. Once consumed, they are broken down into glucose, which is then moved to the blood where it is stored for later use in the muscle tissue and the liver.
Once those stores are full, glucose can also be converted to fat, where it is then stored in the adipose tissue of the body.
Whole and Refined Carbohydrates
Now, it is important to note that not all carbohydrates are equal.
Carbohydrates can be described as whole carbohydrates, or refined carbohydrates, and the way they each interact with body once consumed differ greatly.
Whole carbohydrates effectively describe those that come from whole food sources, such as vegetables, whole fruit, potatoes and sweet potatoes, legumes, and whole grains. These foods contain mostly starchy carbohydrates, often with some fibre sprinkled in for good measure.
Refined carbohydrates consist mostly of sugars, and are found in practically anything that was made in a factory (such as soft drinks, muesli bars, bread, pasta, fruit juices, and pastries).
Refined carbohydrates are digested at an incredibly rapid rate, and as such cause an extremely fast rise in insulin secretion after consumption (insulin is a hormone that causes the shuttling of glucose and fatty acids from the blood into the tissues where they are then stored).
This can trigger hunger cravings (despite only eating recently) and has shown strong associations with overeating.
Moreover, refined carbohydrates have in effect been stripped of all nutrients, and as such don’t provide the body with any vitamins, minerals, or fiber that are essential to its healthy and efficient function.
The high consumption of refined carbohydrates have shown strong associations with a number of health issues, including increased rates of obesity, increase incidence of metabolic disorders and diabetes, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
This is in stark comparison to whole carbohydrates, which contain an abundance of essential vitamins and minerals, and are absorbed very slowly – causing a very minor increase in insulin secretion.
Additionally, the high consumption of whole carbohydrates (with particular emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) has demonstrated associations with improved metabolic health and a considerably lower risk of disease.
Carbohydrates and Energy
It is important to note that carbohydrates (and the glucose they provide the body with) are essential to providing energy that is used to sustain high intensity exercise.
Also considering that the brain uses glucose as its primary source of fuel, it doesn’t make sense to limit our carbohydrates consumption as it will seriously inhibit our capacity for physical activity, while also impeding our cognitive functioning.
Carbohydrates and Weight Gain
‘But so and so told me that carbs cause weight gain???’
Just a quick note on carbohydrates intake and weight gain. Yes high levels of processed carbohydrates have shown strong associations with an increase incidence of obesity, AND yes, reducing carbohydrate intake MAY result in weight loss.
BUT that does not meant that carbohydrates are the cause of weight gain.
By cutting carbohydrates for our diet we cause a subsequent reduction in our daily energy intake. It is this reduction that causes weight gain, and not the loss of carbohydrates specifically.
We as humans have been eating carbohydrates for thousands upon thousands of years, whereas the obesity epidemic that plagues our great nation only really started in the 1970’s. This most likely correlates with an increased production (and consumption) of refined carbohydrates, and a subsequent reduction in the consumption of whole carbohydrates.
It doesn’t make sense to blame relatively new health problems on things that have been occurring for thousands of years.
Carbohydrates are essential to providing the body with energy for exercise, and can promote quality mental function. Moreover, carbohydrates are NOT the sole cause of weight gain – rather overeating is.
I t is again important to note that not all carbohydrates are created equal, and we should be cautious of what types of carbohydrates we consume.
The consumption of refined carbohydrates has shown to promote overeating, and has shown strong associations with increased rates of obesity, metabolic disease and diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Whole carbohydrates provide the body with essential nutrients, energy, and fibre, and as such should make up the bulk of our carbohydrate consumption.
There is no issue with carbohydrate consumption in its entirety, but there is with the type of carbohydrates we choose to consume!
Luke Cafferty is a fitness junkie, personal trainer, and blogger. He’s passionate about living a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a strong and well-rounded physique. Check out more of his work at Strength Authority or follow him on Facebook & Twitter.