The Truth About Carbs (And How to Eat Them)

Should You Eat Carbs?

So, carbs! The macronutrient that seems to pose the most confusion for people and the one with the most myth surrounding it when it comes to health and weight management ‘should I eat them?’, ‘should I cut them out?’, ‘should I increase them?’, ‘what are good ones?’ etc. etc. They are a part of our diet that have been hammered in the press over the years and that has lead to mass misunderstanding.

So, carbohydrates are an important part of our diet and being without them can create severe problems in the long term. The real big issue in all of this is the type of carbohydrates you consume, and the amount of them that you consume. This is because of the way that carbohydrates influence our body in terms of their biochemical effects. For so long we have always been taught to think in terms of calories, but the calorie model really doesn’t help us a lot. The foods that are providing the calories in the first place can influence so many aspects of our biology, including our hormones, signalling pathways, fat storage, fat mobilisation. The list is endless. We need to think in terms of our entire biological system, not numbers in and out, and getting educated in this area is what will save and protect your health in the long run.

So let’s break this down into the two distinct areas: The first part of the carbohydrate puzzle is the TYPE of carbohydrates you consume. This really doesn’t have to be complicated, the first rule for ensuring your diet is comprised of the right type of carbs is very simple – to swap the white for the brown. So if you eat bread, ditch the white for a good multigrain. Do you like pasta? Then bin the white stuff and get a good wholewheat pasta. Rice – go for brown over white. Brown versions have a much higher fibre content which means that they take far longer to digest and therefore liberate their sugars far more slowly than their simple white counterparts. This is where we can clearly see how the foods supplying our calories actually influence our biochemistry in a way far beyond numerical value.

The Importance of Blood Sugar Balance

The rate and the extent to which food releases its sugar really matters, as this determines how high and how fast blood sugar will rise. When blood sugar rises, we secrete the hormone insulin, which binds to our cells, telling them that sugar is available for them to take up and convert into ATP – our cells’ energy currency. The problem is that cells have a limit to the amount of glucose they can take in. Too much glucose in a cell in one sitting can lead to oxidation within the cell and cause severe damage, so the amount they take up is very tightly regulated. In normal circumstances, gentle rises in blood sugar don’t present a major problem. There is a small insulin spike, the glucose transporters open, glucose goes into the cells, blood sugar returns back down to a normal level, and all is metabolically well.

However, if we consume simple sugars that have very little fibre in them – ie. white bread, or have a simple structure, such as the simple sugar in chocolate, they release their sugar content rapidly, producing a sharp and high rise in blood sugar. The body responds as it always does by releasing insulin and telling cells there is glucose available for use, the cells open their transporters, and in it goes. However, if blood sugar is still high once the cells are full it still has to be dealt with and the body is very effective at managing this. We are able to store it for a rainy day! To do that we have to turn it into something else; the leftover sugar is sent to the liver where it is converted into something called triacylglycerol otherwise known as triglycerides. This is basically a fatty substance that can be carried to our fat cells for storage so that we can access it later – if we allow our bodies the chance. This fatty substance is carried to the fat cells via our circulation, and levels of triglycerides in the blood can determine to what extent this is occurring. Here we have a double whammy problem. We have basically started to add stock to our fat cells, but as these triglycerides are transported there through the circulatory system, they can cause damage to the lining of the blood vessel walls and trigger a series of events that ends up in the vessel damage we know as heart disease. In short, raised triglycerides increase heart disease risk and if we continue to push blood sugar up and stimulate insulin release, our cells become less receptive to insulin signalling and we eventually become insulin resistant. This can progress to type 2 diabetes if not managed.

The take away here is that preventing blood sugar from getting too high too quickly for too long can help prevent us gaining weight and protect against heart disease. Something as simple as changing the type of carbohydrates that you eat can have some serious long-term health impacts. The higher the fibre, the slower glucose is released and in turn, blood sugar rises gently instead of being bombarded by glucose. Aside from the difference in insulin response to complex carbohydrates, there is also the additional benefits to the digestive system that the higher fibre content brings.

How to Eat the Right Carbs

As we now know, managing blood sugar is vital. The second part of the picture is the amount of carbs we eat. For generations, we have had the message hammered home to us that saturated fat is terrible for our health and we should avoid it at all costs and were instead advised to build our diets around starchy carbohydrates. This messaging caused a drastic skewing in the macronutrient composition of the Western diet. The ratio of macronutrients – proteins, fats, carbohydrates – we ended up eating as a result of this information was more favoured towards simple carbohydrates. If we were all eating loads of sweet potato, or brown rice etc like the Okinawans then it wouldn’t be a big problem. Instead, we eat processed, refined foods out of a cereal box, white bread, white pasta, energy bars, rice cakes etc. etc. This menu, for example, is likely familiar to the average Westerner:

A bowl of cereal and a slice of toast for breakfast, a sandwich and a packet of crisps for lunch, pasta, or white rice with a sauce and maybe a couple of slices of bread for dinner with a dessert of some kind to follow. This describes a very normal diet here in the UK. Now, NONE of these foods are BAD in and of themselves. The issue is the pattern of their consumption. This much-refined carbohydrate is too much and sends blood sugar through the roof, and we know what that leads to.

As well as making better carbohydrate choices, we need to reduce the amount in your diet. Many of us could benefit from halving the amount we eat. If you have 100g of pasta usually, have 50g instead. If you have 4 tablespoons of rice, have 2. That’s the easiest way for most people to get them in a good range. Then, make up the difference on your plate with nonstarchy vegetables and good quality proteins. Make sure that every meal contains a protein source as this will further reduce digestion time, meaning blood sugar will be drip fed even more gradually.

SO that’s it. It’s that simple really. Don’t avoid carbohydrates completely as the results in the long term may be problematic. Just understand which ones are good choices and why, and don’t eat vast amounts of them. Instead, building your diet around nonstarchy vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats.

Best Sources of Carbohydrate

Some of our favourite carbohydrate sources:

  • Brown Rice
  • Bulgur Wheat
  • Granary Bread
  • Pearl Barley
  • Wholewheat pasta
  • Quinoa
  • Sweet Potatoes (especially purple ones)

Want more nutrition tips? Discover Sano Life

To learn evidence-based nutrition and how to make the best food choices for your long-term health, study at Sano School of Culinary Medicine.