Fast Fact Friday: Let’s Talk About…Carbs with Dr Kelly Johnston, Head of Nutrition

 

Dr Kelly Johnston, Head of Nutrition

1. Do carbs make you fat?

Carbs won’t necessarily make you fat but they’re often demonised, especially when it comes to weight management, so let’s set the record straight. Too many carbs can make you fat, but so can too much protein or too much fat. It’s the excess energy intake overall that’s the problem, rather than the individual nutrient per se. So, the good news if you’re a carb lover is that you can include them in your meal plan, but you do need to think about the type and amount that you’re having.

2. What is the difference in starch vs sugar, and complex vs simple carbs?

Dietary carbs that are broken down and used for energy are referred to as available carbs and they come in two main forms: starches and sugars. Complex carbs include starchy foods like wholegrain bread, pasta, potato, rice, oats whereas sugary, or simple carbs, are just what they sound like i.e. foods that contain a high amount of sugars – fruit juice, soft drinks, honey jam and sweets. Dietary sugars are also found naturally in a wide range of unprocessed foods too, including fruit, milk and other dairy products. However, bear in mind that ‘sugar’ (i.e. table sugar) is an extracted, highly refined carb consisting of just calories and offers no other nutritional benefits, so its use should be restricted on any weight management plan.

3. What kind of carbs should I be eating?

Typically, you want to aim for foods that contain carbs which are more complex and limit those which are more refined. This is because it takes them longer to be broken down and absorbed, so the impact on your blood sugars is less. Things like oats, pasta, wholegrain bread are absorbed more slowly and they contain other beneficial nutrients too.

More refined foods are absorbed much quicker which may lead to a quick spike in blood sugar levels, ultimately leaving you feeling hungry again, sooner rather than later.

Whilst fruit contains naturally occurring sugars, it’s not what we would call a simple carb because, in its unprocessed form, it contains fibre and vitamins too.

4. Can you give some examples of good and bad carbs?

A good rule of thumb is that carbohydrate foods which are less processed, are better than those which are heavily processed. So, whilst everything in moderation is the key, you should limit simple sugary carbs like jam, sweets and cakes and instead go for complex starchy carbs like wholegrain bread (yes, bread is ok), pasta and oats. Of course, you should include vegetables too, many of which are very low in carbs but obviously very good for you, and you should limit fruit to a maximum of 2 portions per day. And no, this doesn’t mean wine counts just because it’s made from grapes, the sugar has long since been converted into alcohol!

5. What is the recommended amount of carbs to have per day for females?

It really depends on if you are wanting to lose weight or not, and what size you are. A very small female would need far fewer than a much larger one – for both weight maintenance and loss.

The government Eat Well plate suggests circa 50% of the calories you consume should be from carbohydrates (with no more than 5% from free sugars) and if you do decide to eat this many, then it would be better to have wholegrain, less processed varieties as they are more filling, and generally more nutritious.

6. If I remain in my calorie deficit will my body be healthier if those calories have been fruit and vegetables vs carbs and sugar?

If you are in a calorie deficit, then you will be losing weight. Weight loss, if you are overweight or obese is clearly advisable and also metabolically beneficial and you will be improving your health, just through weight loss alone. Provided your diet is nutritionally complete, then this will be contributing to your overall health.

Of course, fruits and vegetables are healthy food options and you can eat a lot more of these by weight, than you can of carbs (by this I’m referring to carb-dense foods) and sugar. Any diet that is higher in fruit and veg, is likely to better for you than one that is not and whilst you can, of course, eat carbs and sugar too, it’s about overall quality and portion size.

7. Is there a difference between white and brown carbs, for example, white pasta and brown pasta or white rice and all the other sorts of rice. Which are the best ones for me to eat?

Generally speaking, brown carbs are less processed and contain more fibre per serving. A lot of brown carbohydrate foods are what we would call ‘wholegrain’. So, using your examples above, brown rice contains all parts of the grain — including the fibrous bran and other nutrient-rich components.

White rice has had the bran and germ removed, which are the most nutritious parts of the grain, and it’s also much lower in vitamins too.

So, whilst both types are good sources of energy, white types are not as nutritious.

If you are looking to increase your fibre intake, I would definitely recommend the least processed varieties as they are more nutritious.

8. Does pasta and bread or beige food have a higher amount of carbs than other foods?

Pasta and bread, are very different to what I believe you probably mean by beige foods like pastries, biscuits, cakes etc. Pasta is a healthy food option and can be consumed as part of a healthy weight loss or weight maintenance diet. This is also true for things like wholemeal bread, wholegrain crackers etc.

Beige foods like those mentioned above, in addition to the heavily processed carbs they contain, also contain a lot of fat and can contain a lot of salt too.

So, whilst dried pasta is more carb-dense (i.e. most of the calories will come just from carbs), per portion, once it’s cooked it won’t have as many as a portion of typical beige food.

In other words, I would consider them different classes of food altogether. However, in general, other foods like meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables, have fewer carbs than pasta/bread/beige foods!

9. If I eat less carbs will I lose weight more quickly?

It really depends what you mean by ‘less carbs’. If you cut back just a little on carbs, but replace them with other things like lots of protein and fat, then it won’t make too much of a difference at all.

If you cut back on carbs and try to remove all starchy forms from your diet, then you are very likely to swap over to a metabolic state of fat-burning (called ketosis) and you should see a more rapid initial weight loss, followed by steady fat loss over time. Ketotic diets are well tolerated and can be very effective if you stick to them.

10. I read an article about a diet where you flex your carb intake day to day, so high one day and low the next, like a metabolic confusion. Is this a safe way to lose weight?

I’ve never heard of this diet before and so without knowing more detail, it’s difficult for me to comment on the safety of this. How high is high and how low is low? These things are very open to interpretation.

What I will say, is that if we think about how most of us eat, we vary it. Sometimes quite a lot, from day to day. I know I rarely eat the same two days on the trot and I’m sure most others don’t either.

I can’t see what the advantage to having a high carb intake one day and then a low one the next would be, because over such a short period of time, you will just end up eating an average amount of carbs per day over the course of the week. It doesn’t sound like it should be unsafe, but it also doesn’t sound as if it would be particularly effective either – unless of course, this causes you to reduce your calorie intake overall, in which case, weight loss will occur.

11. Should I avoid fruit on a diet because it’s a carb?

No, I would not advise avoiding fruit on a diet. In its natural unprocessed form, fruit is an extremely nutritious, low-calorie option.

And whilst the main source of carbohydrate in fruit is sugar (natural fruit sugar called fructose), it contains a lot of fibre, a lot of water and tonnes of vitamins and is a really healthy choice.

Have no more than 2 portions per day if you’re on a weight loss plan and limit your consumption of very sugary fruit like bananas. Dried fruit and fruit juice, I would stay steer clear of or consume only very small portions infrequently.

12. If I eat carbs at night will they make me gain more than if I ate them in the morning?

Ultimately, the amount of calories that you eat over the course of the day, will dictate your weight management. So, it’s not just about the type of macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein), it’s about the amount too.

However, the timing of eating throughout the day is now a topical research area in nutrition science and we are learning more about how the body handles food later in the evening.

We don’t process food as efficiently later in the evening, or at night, as we do during the daytime and so whilst I won’t say ‘don’t eat carbs in the evening’ I would say, watch your food intake generally later on and try to avoid late-night snacking if possible.

13. How many carbs should I be eating a day? Can I have potatoes with dinner, cereal for breakfast and still lose weight?

There is no one size fits all answer to this question and I would need to know more about your starting weight, level of activity and other aspects of your diet.

It’s worth remembering that for any weight loss plan, you would be much better off eating more complex carbs, with higher fibre and which are less energy dense (fewer calories per 100g) and watching your portions.

There’s nothing wrong with eating potatoes, although I would recommend boiled new potatoes, rather than a jacket potato as the impact on blood sugar is much less and the calories are a lot lower.

Again, cereal is fine, but remember, the calories on the box are per 30g portion – which isn’t a huge amount so be careful on portion sizes. Porridge is always a good bet, lots of fibre and very good for you too.

Golden rule:

Everything in moderation…oh, and, the more similar it is to its natural state, the better for you!

But the best news, if you’re following the LighterLife Fast plan, is that on your Smart days you can have a meal of your choice whatever carbs they contain! For more information and to be inspired by our recipes see https://www.lighterlifefast.com/fast-philosophy/