The 'Eat Right' challenge - Carbs

Rachel Hartley

What are carbs & why do we need them?

Carbohydrates are essentially the energy nutrient – they provide us with the fuel our brains and bodies need to function. Not all carbs are the same. Different types are used in different ways by our body, but all carbs provide the same amount of energy – which is 4 kcals per gram.

You will have seen on food labels it says "Carbohydrate – of which sugars..." This is because carbs are made up of starches, sugars and fibre. These are all types of carbohydrate, but the size of the carb molecule determines how it is digested, absorbed and used by our bodies.

Sugars – this type of carb gives fast release energy. The small, simple sugar molecules are quickly broken down by the body, so useful for immediate energy needs.

Starches – are slow energy release carbs. These have bigger, more complex molecules which take longer to be digested, making them useful for sustained energy needs.

Fibre – may or may not be digested by the body – it depends if it is soluble or not. The insoluble type doesn't get digested, which is important for keeping our digestive system healthy as it stimulates our gut, helping food to pass through it.

Why do carbs get a bad rap?

Carbs have been demonised over recent years and blamed for weight gain – which is strange as carbs contain half the calories of fat (4 kcals per gram vs 9 kcals per gram). Despite that, many people think cutting out carbs is a good way to lose weight. In part, this is probably because cutting out carbs may give good initial weight loss.

This is because reducing calories in your diet, particularly from carbs, may cause your body to start drawing on its glycogen stores i.e. carbohydrate stored in our liver and muscles. Each gram of glycogen stored in the body is bound to 3-4 grams of water, so tapping into your glycogen stores also releases a lot of water. So the initial weight loss is mainly water, not fat and isn't sustainable for too long.

The real problem is the type of carbohydrate – as explained above, not all carbs are the same. High-calorie foods often contain simple carbs (sugar) plus fat, and it's this nutrient combo that makes the food taste great – and when food tastes good, we often overindulge.

But choose the right type of carb, and it will actually help you to lose weight. Eating a diet with more complex carbohydrates (starches and fibre) and less simple carbohydrates (sugars) is a great way to lose and maintain a healthy weight. If you ask what the best nutrients are you should eat, complex carbs and fibre-rich foods would be right up there at the top of the list. They contain loads of important nutrients to help us stay healthy, and they can help us feel fuller for longer, which is a huge benefit for weight loss.

How many carbs do I need each day?

The UK recommendation is that approximately 50% of an adult's energy intake should come from carbohydrates. For an average maintenance intake of 2000 kcal /day this would be around 250g of carbs per day. On a reduced calorie intake of 1400 kcal / day, this would be 175g / day.

If you feel that you want to curb the number of carbs in your diet, Nutracheck has a choice of nutrient goals you can set – including a Lower Carb goal. Our nutritionists have set this to reduce your carb intake and ensure the level is healthy.

The vital thing with carbs is to choose wisely. Complex carbs are good – such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, and fibre rich cereals. Simple carbs are the ones to cut back on – which typically have high sugar (and fat) content – such as cakes, biscuits, desserts and sweets.


What carbs should I be eating?

We don't like the term 'good carbs' and 'bad carbs' – because that demonises the whole food group, and we're trying to get across the message that carbs are not bad for you! It's just about choosing wisely. So we'd prefer to use the descriptions – 'your usual' carbs vs 'even better' carbs. Carbs come in different types:

Complex carbs (starches) have larger molecules making them harder to break down in the body, releasing energy slowly.

Simple carbs (sugars) have small, simple molecules that are quickly broken down in the body and release a surge of energy.

Fibre is a carb but more likely to be found in complex carbohydrates. The body may or may not digest it (depending on the type), and it aids in the healthy functioning of our gut.

Quality calories: great carbs to choose

  • Wholemeal bread
  • Brown rice
  • Giant couscous
  • Oatcakes e.g. Nairn, any variety
  • Wholegrain breakfast cereal (e.g. Shredded Wheat, Bran Flakes, Fruit and Fibre)
  • Porridge – made with milk or water (if using sachets, use the plain variety rather than sweetened)
  • A handful of nuts
  • Jacket potato (eat the skin!)
  • Quinoa
  • Fruits and vegetables with their skins on

What carbs should I avoid or limit?

Carbs that fall into the 'fast energy release' type are the ones to limit. So the carb foods with high sugar content – see the list below.

At Nutracheck, we don't say 'never' eat these foods as nothing is banned, but consume with care. These carbs are the ones that are very 'moreish' – one portion is okay, but if you find it hard to stop at one, then you might be best to avoid.

There may be occasions when we need food with fast energy release. Still, if you struggle with energy dips and snacking, you are best to avoid foods that give a quick energy burst (when the sugar enters your bloodstream) followed by a slump shortly after – which gets you reaching for another sweet fix. Switching your carb choices will help break the cycle (more on that below).

Carbs to curb

  • Biscuits
  • Cakes
  • Sugary drinks
  • Confectionery
  • Sugar added to hot drinks

Why cutting out carbs completely is a bad idea

Lowering your carbs a little is fine (for example, if you're following our Lower Carb Goal), but the danger with a drastic reduction is that you also cut out an essential source of fibre in your diet. The good 'complex' carbs we've talked about are excellent sources of fibre – so if you take a blanket cut on ALL carbs, you're throwing out all the good stuff with the less healthy carbs.

And the problem with that is that most of us are not getting enough fibre in our diet anyway! The daily fibre target is 30g, and the average female in the UK is hitting around 17g and male 20g. So as always, it comes down to balance – carbs play an essential role in our diet. Aside from providing energy, they are fibre providers too.

7 top tips for a healthier lower carb diet

We asked Fitness Expert Helen to share a few questions she often gets asked by clients.

Should I have a sports/energy drink when I go to the gym?

This is a personal bugbear of mine!

I see so many people wandering around the gym with a bottle of essentially sugary water infused with caffeine. If you're training for less than 2 hours, your primary focus should be hydration (drinking water), so a sports drink will offer few benefits.

If you feel you need a pre-workout boost, then coffee will do the trick! If you prefer an energy drink, make sure you check the ingredients and calories – they still count, and certain beverages may result in you consuming more calories than you're burning off during the workout.

Do I need to carb load before I go for a run/workout?

The short answer is no unless you are about to run a marathon or are an elite athlete!

For general fitness – a visit to the gym, a 5k or 10k run, for example, you don't need to eat a shedload of spaghetti to fuel your exercise. That said, it is essential to eat right beforehand – see the answer to the next question.

And my final point – it's easy to use exercise as a reason to over-consume calories! Remember, exercise benefits can quickly be impacted by eating too many calories before and after compared to the amount burnt! So don't slip into the mindset of 'I'm okay to have that cake at work because I'm going to the gym tonight'.

Firstly, you've just given yourself another 300 calories to burn off, and secondly, what happens if your plans change and you don't get there? Cake 1 – 0 Gym.

If I don't need to carb load, what should I eat before and after exercise?

If you're exercising for general health and fitness, you don't need to worry too much about specific timings. To get the most from your workout, you need to ensure you are adequately fuelled and hydrated – lack of fluid does stop you from performing at your best.

And it is also good to eat well afterwards to ensure your body recovers and adapts effectively. This would be my eating plan:

2-3 hours before your workout – eat a normal meal incorporating:

  • Protein (minimally processed), e.g. chicken, fish, Greek yoghurt, eggs, Quorn
  • Vegetables
  • Quality carbs e.g. rice, potato, oats, bread
  • Healthy fats e.g. avocado, nut butter.

Up to 1 hour before – eat something easily digestible:

  • Toast with almond/peanut butter
  • Smoothie with almond milk, banana, Greek yoghurt, protein powder
  • Apple and peanut butter.

Post-workout – try and eat within 2 hours of your workout:

  • Protein (minimally processed) as above
  • Vegetables
  • Quality carbs as above
  • Healthy fats as above.

Nutritionist Janet dispels a few carb myths

Over recent years, carbs have had a bad press. There have been lots of confusing messages, many not supported by any scientific evidence. Consequently, there's a mistaken belief that you have to cut out carbs – particularly bread to lose weight. Here are a few more statements that get bandied around.

1 Carbs make you fat!

Our comment:  Carbs provide less than half the calories of fat – 4kcal per gram vs 9kcal per gram for fat, so carbs are not the most energy-dense nutrient. Also, it is very 'expensive' for the body to convert carbs into fat for storage, so unless there is a significant excess of carbs (and more importantly, calories), they won't be stored as fat (or make you fat).

It's all about the overall calories we eat and how we use them! However – high-calorie foods often contain simple carbs (sugar) plus fat, and this nutrient combo makes the food taste great. When food tastes good, we often overindulge and consume too many calories.

2 When I cut out carbs, I lose more weight, so that's better, right?

Our comment: Weight loss boils down to creating a calorie deficit – if you eat fewer calories than your body needs, you will start to lose weight. For some people, this happens when they cut down on carbs. For others, it may be when they switch to lower fat foods.

Rapid weight loss is often down to losing water rather than fat, so we can't say that cutting out carbs leads to faster weight loss.

The science. Reducing calories in your diet, particularly from carbs, may cause your body to start drawing on its glycogen stores, i.e. carbohydrate stored in your liver and muscles. As each gram of stored glycogen is bound to 3-4 grams of water, using your glycogen stores causes water to be released too, so initial weight loss is mostly water and not fat, which is unsustainable.

3 Smoothies are a super healthy choice

Our comment: The sugars naturally found in fruits and vegetables are handled differently by our body because they are contained within the cells of the food. This means we initially digest and absorb them more slowly.

Smoothies can be a great way to get fruit, veg and other great foods into our diets, BUT – it is important to be aware – the blending process breaks down the cell walls making the sugars within fruit and veg more readily available.

These free sugars in fruit juices and smoothies ('free' because they are no longer contained within the cell wall) are more rapidly absorbed into our bodies so may lead to fluctuations in blood sugars.

However, when we eat whole fruit and veg, this process is slowed down, and the sugar is released more steadily. Other important nutrients in fruit and veg such as fibre may also be broken down in smoothies.

4 Honey is healthier than sugar

Our comment: Although honey is often thought to be healthier than sugar and used as a substitute, it is in fact mostly made up of sugars. The types of sugar molecules are slightly different from those we see in white sugar, but it contains around the same number of calories.

The sugars in honey are slightly sweeter than sugar, so you may be able to use less of it (and therefore eat fewer calories), but swapping sugar for honey doesn't automatically make a recipe healthier.

5 Brown sugar is healthier than white sugar

Our comment: Brown sugar is essentially white sugar but mixed with molasses to give it the brown colour. Nutritionally they are the same, providing the same number of calories (4 kcals/gram) and the same level of sweetness.

Ideally it's best to cut down on all types of added sugar in our diet – whether this is white sugar, brown sugar or honey for example. If you take sugar in your tea or coffee, try gradually reducing how much you have over time to help your palate adjust to less sweetness. Or you could try adding a small amount of sweetener such as stevia to cut down on added calories, while still keeping the sweetness.

6 Fruit is bad for me and contains lots of sugar

Our comment: No! This just isn't true – yes fruits can contain higher levels of sugars than other foods but they also contain loads of important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fibre and water. The sugars in fruits are naturally occurring and are not thought to impact blood sugar levels as free/added sugars do. Eating plenty of fruit is a great way to support a healthy and balanced diet, and don't forget the veg too!


Questions from members

The Keto diet is very popular – what happens if I cut out virtually all carbs from my diet?

The Keto diet was developed for people with medical conditions and wasn't intended to be a diet for healthy individuals. The extreme nature of the Keto diet means that you cut out virtually all carbs from your diet. Although this works for some people, it is an extreme diet and can have adverse effects.

Cutting out carbs on the Keto diet means having around 15-30g of carbs per day – compared to the average intake of approximately 250g. Carbs are our primary energy source, so cutting them out means the body using other nutrients for energy – namely fat and protein. And if you cut out all carbs, you cut out essential nutrients like fibre from your diet. Not having enough fibre can lead to digestive issues and constipation.

Carbs also give us essential vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins which are crucial for energy metabolism. Having fewer carbs in your diet might be suitable for you, but cutting them out altogether may not be the healthiest option. I have written a blog about more drastic carb reduction (the Keto Diet) and the pros and cons.

A nutritionist's review of the Keto Diet

What are the healthiest carb vegetables to eat?

All veggies are great! They are a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and fibre and should be the staple in our diets. Some veggies are higher in carbohydrates than others, so always use the app to check how the veggies you choose fit in with the rest of your day's intake.

What can I do if I really don't like wholemeal bread?

That's fine – if you prefer the taste of white bread, then why not try a 50:50 version? These breads are baked with the goodness of wholemeal, but the taste of white so are a good halfway house if you're not so keen on wholemeal. Or why not try other options such as crackers, crispbreads, pittas or wraps – sometimes, choosing a different variety of wholemeal might make it more enjoyable.

Click to compare the fibre content of different bread products

Do you have any tips for healthily cutting down on carbs?

If you're looking to cut down on carbs, then there are a few simple tips to help you on your way – please do remember to take things slowly and don't cut out carbs altogether. Remember they are a great source of fibre, vitamins, and minerals too, so choose wisely:

  • Don't double carb – think about whether you need to have pasta and bread with a meal or rice and naan with your curry.
  • Cut down on your portions – we all overdo it when it comes to cooking rice and pasta. Weigh out your portion or use a measuring cup or spoon to ensure you're not having more than you need.
  • Fill up your plate with salad or veggies first before you add your carb portion.
  • Try a vegetable carb like courgetti spaghetti or cauliflower rice – same texture but cutting down on calories.
  • Plan ahead – do you usually have a sandwich for lunch every day? Why not swap for a salad or a wrap?

I hope this blog helps to clear up some of the confusion around carbs. To summarise: carbs are not bad – just choose the right ones!

Nutracheck co-founder Rachel Hartley, BSc (Hons) Food & Nutrition is passionate about food and diet. Rachel's philosophy is providing accurate, up-to-date calorie information to help people make the right food choices.

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