‘Oh no, carbs are the enemy!’ Eat with anyone who’s dieting these days, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear this – particularly when there are chips in the offing. But is there any truth in it?
Well, yes. But, again, no. Carbohydrates are essentially a chains of sugars, which the body breaks down to use for energy. Carbs are one of the best and most readily available forms of fuel that the body has available to it.
So, you might be thinking, if it’s such excellent fuel, where’s the problem? And the answer is that it really depends on what lifestyle you lead, and how active or sedentary you are. The trick to weight management is essentially to ensure that the correct amount of fuel goes in to run the body for the day. On paper, having lots of carbohydrates (fuel) in your body should be a good thing. And if you are constantly moving, it is. But the problems start if you’re less active, and your body is left with surplus carbohydrates that it has to store somewhere. Some is stored as glycogen in our livers but space here is limited. So our body does something very clever with the rest – it converts it to fat. The body likes fat, it’s an easy and very energy-efficient way to store fuel, and when needed, easy for the body to convert into energy. But if you input lots of carbohydrate every day then your body always plenty of fuel available, so there’s less need for it to use this back-up store.
If you’re sedentary you will continually be consuming more carbs than your body needs to keep it going, and the surplus will continue to be stored as fat. But if you’re active this is less of a problem because you’ll tend to use the energy from most or all of the carbs you consume, your body will tend to have less fat stored, and you’ll often be using that store for extra energy.
But it’s not just the lifestyles we live that matter, so does the type of carbohydrates we eat. Carbs come in two forms; simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are essentially sugary foods, like cakes, chocolate and many processed foods. Complex carbohydrates tend to be starchy foods – pasta, rice, potatoes and bread for example. Both food groups are ultimately broken down for fuel. The simple sugars are broken down quickly and provide lots of glucose rapidly. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down but provide a more steady and sustained source of glucose.
Anyone with an active lifestyle can afford to consume both forms as their energy requirements are higher. However the more sedentary you are, the less simple sugars you should consume. This is because the ‘sugar rush’ you often get from these sugary foods acts as an overload that encourages the body to store more of it as fat. (Instead you should look to eat complex carbohydrates which release their energy steadily through the day.)
Finally, there’s another factor to consider. Not just what kind of carbs you consume, but when. Eating carbohydrates earlier in the day, means that they are available to give us the energy to fuel our daily activity. However consume them when you are inactive – in the evenings for example – and the body will start the process of converting them to fat.
So, having established that carbohydrates are not in fact Satan’s food but are actually essential to keeping us going, how much do we need? Current advice is that we should get half our energy needs from carbohydrates, with at least one third of our daily intake of food being starchy carbohydrates. Of course, this is a generalisation, and those with a more active life will need a higher proportion, whilst, the less active should think of reducing it, and ensuring that carbohydrates they do consume are of the complex, steady-release type.
I hope that all makes sense. In the meantime, pass the chips – I’ve got a class to teach!