Do we really need to avoid carbohydrates to lose weight?
Carbs. Do we need them? Yes! Will they make us fat? Not necessarily. Carbohydrate is a macronutrient, along with protein and fat. Each person requires a certain amount of each of these nutrients depending on their age, size, medical conditions, and activity level. If we consume any nutrient in excess then our requirement will be met and the excess stored as body fat. It doesn’t matter which nutrient we overconsume- any excess will be stored as fat! If this is the case, then why have we all decided that carbs are causing us to gain weight?
What are carbs?
The term “carbohydrates” or “carbs” refers to foods that are rich in this macronutrient rather than being rich in protein or fats.
Some carbohydrate-rich foods include;
Sugar is a carbohydrate- whether it is naturally occuring or added. Therefore yoghurt, jam, milk, legumes, nuts, cheese, all contain some carbohydrates!
There are a huge amount of carbohydrate-containing foods around, and to avoid them all would make for a very restrictive diet! But if we are searching for an effective weight loss strategy, should we be cutting the carbs?
Do we need carbohydrates?
Yes! Carbohydrates are the fuel for our muscles and our brain. If you have ever tried to avoid carbohydrates or even just skipped a meal, you will be familiar with the foggy brain and reduced concentration that come with this. This can impact on how productive we are, our mood, energy levels, and physical performance.
Although protein is a key nutrient in muscle recovery, carbohydrates are also necessary for before and after (and sometimes during) exercise. Carbohydrates will re-fuel our muscles to ensure that we have energy to recover and to fuel us for any further exercise.
Why have we victimized carbohydrates?
Carbs have received a lot of bad press in the past few years. This may be due to the increasing trendiness of paleo and Atkins type diets. Diets that dramatically reduce carbohydrates will likely result in a loss of water weight. This is because we retain more fluid when eating carbohydrates compared to other macronutrients. This might be why many see a low-carb diet as a quick fix.
It also happens that any food that contains sugar therefore contains carbohydrate. So chocolate, lollies, muesli bars, milkshakes, and ice cream are all carbohydrate-containing foods. As are chippies, biscuits, cakes, muffins, and desserts. When you decide to cut out all carbs- then of course you cut out all of the junk food too! Since you are now avoiding processed foods, and eating more low carb foods like vegetables and lean meat, it is very likely that your overall energy intake has reduced. Therefore you are more likely to lose weight!
So maybe it isn’t the reduction in carbs that is necessary for weight loss, but instead the reduction of high-energy, low nutritional value “junk food” snacks, and more awareness around what we are eating!
Is there any evidence to support a low carbohydrate diet for weight loss?
Research has indicated that protein-rich foods have a greater thermic, and satiety inducing effect than other micronutrient-rich diets. Most people aren’t meeting their protein requirements so could benefit from replacing some of the carbohdyrates in their diet with protein e.g. swapping jam on toast for poached eggs, and adding boiled eggs and chicken to salads and sammies instead of having vegetarian wraps and pitas.If you are enjoying a wide variety of foods and making sure that you include some protein and carbohydrates at every meal, then your body will have adequate fuel to function and weight loss processes are able to occur.
Some studies have also shown that over a period of 18-24 months, weight loss on both low-carb, and a general healthy eating guideline diet, are not significantly different. This indicates that although protein-rich diets may be beneficial in the short term, there is no evidence to support their long term efficacy in comparison to other “healthy eating’ diets.
Should we eat carbohydrates?
Yes, we should eat carbohydrates. Carbs are an important fuel source for the body and without them, we are unable to provide our muscles with glycogen- it’s a primary fuel source. The type and timing of carbs is important when trying to lose weight. Key factors to consider are:
- Timing: Aim to eat carbohydrates around exercise. This will give you the energy to train hard and the fuel to recover properly.
- Snacks are optional and not a necessary part of our diet. Assess whether or not you are actually hungry at snack times and eat in response to hunger rather than boredom or habit. This will give your body a chance to burn body fat between meals rather than having a constant supply of glucose available.
- Type: When trying to lose weight, consume low GI carbs to promote lipolysis (fat breakdown).e.g. brown rice, kumara, legumes, wholegrain bread, and oats.
- Choose carbohydrate foods that are rich in fibre to promote fullness and prevent reaching for additional snacks after you have eaten. This includes anything that has visible grains and more “bulk” to it than refined carbohydrates e.g. oats, grainy crackers, multigrain breads.
- Always pair a carbohydrate food with a protein food. E.g. eat crackers with hummus or cottage cheese, and toast with peanut butter or egg. This will keep you fuller for longer and help to control blood sugar levels so you don’t suffer a big energy crash after lunch.
Enjoy carbohydrates but also enjoy other nutrients! There is no need to avoid any single nutrient so enjoy a wise variety of foods every day!