I always found it confusing when people said stuff like, “oh I have to cut down on bread to lose weight”. From a scientific perspective, bread is not super-charged with anything to cause weight gain. It’s definitely not like the magic bean that Jack had. If anything, bread is one of the most affordable staple foods capable of providing energy and micronutrients that you may not otherwise be getting. So, why do people think it’s making us fat? What about other starchy foods and sweet carbs? Today, we’ll talk a bit about the role of carbohydrates in global diets and hopefully, you’ll be able to determine if it’s the cause of weight gain.
Carbohydrates are one of the macronutrient trio which supplies energy to the body. CHO, or Carbs are a diverse set of molecules which are derived from organic monomers (units) such as glucose, fructose and galactose. Plants are the most diverse sources of carbohydrates because they use carbon dioxide and water to create carbs for energy and structure. Carbohydrates can range from the simplest sweet sugars like those found in fruits, to long, branched chains which taste starchy, such as those in potatoes, ground provisions and starchy foods.
Carbs are the main energy source for humans and most carbs are easily broken down by animals to their single monomers, usually glucose. Glucose metabolism can quickly supply energy (each gram of glucose provides 4 calories of energy!), while fats are used as long-term storage of energy.
Dependent on where you’re from, the total amount of energy from carbohydrates in your diet may range from 33% – 60%. Many countries’ population dietary guidelines recommend around 50% or more of daily energy coming from a diverse set of carbohydrates. The best sources include plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains due to their fibre content.
Although many trendy diets have suggested cutting down on carbohydrate consumption, here’s what you can actually gain from a variety of carbs:
- ✅Energy (4 calories for every 1 gram!)
- ✅Vitamins such as folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin C,
- ✅Minerals such as Iron, Magnesium, Potassium
- ✅Fibre which improves bowel function and can lower blood pressure and heart disease risk.
- ✅Better absorption of minerals such as calcium
But why do people think carbs are the devil??
In becoming more civilised, we have reduced our need for physical activity. So, unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there is little reasoning behind chasing down our food, when we can order it online and have it delivered to our door. Remember, the primary aim of macronutrients like carbs is to produce energy. When we consume more carbohydrates than we need and aren’t using them, some are stored as glycogen in the muscles and the remainder of carbs may be stored as fat around the body. Leading to weight gain and all of the other problems that may arise from overweight (and obesity).
My biggest concern with these carbohydrate-axing trendy diets is they often consider removing more “refined” or complex carbs. But that’s a talk for another post.
Carbohydrates are found in varying amounts and types in fruits, vegetables, roots, tubers, leaves, stems, legumes, beans, seeds and even some animal products such as milk. And while research has shown that the excessive consumption of sweeter carbohydrates such as added and free sugar can increase the risk of tooth decay, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and increased inflammatory responses, it’s not fair to paint every carb with the same brush.
Often the benefits of eating a variety of carbohydrates appropriately can outweigh the risks.
For example, although fruits have simpler sweet sugars, they are also good for hydration, vitamins, and minerals. And aiming for starchy carbs such as potatoes, rice, yams, corn, cassava, and eddoes provide you with fibre, fullness and energy.
Some may then argue that we should leave out things like pasta, noodles and bread since they aren’t “natural” carbohydrates. But I think these foods hold socio-economic and cultural importance. While I think they should not be your main source of energy, food also tells the story of a culture. In many cultures, bread is made from the grains milled by those societies or what they could afford. While for other groups, delicacies are formed based on what one could afford. And it is because of this, that many countries have fortified flour and cereals to reduce micronutrient deficiencies in their population.
To summarise, the general recommendations for daily carbohydrate consumption suggest 45-60% of energy from your daily diet from carbohydrates:
- 25g of which can be free sugars (particularly from fruit and natural sources)
- At least 25g of fibre
- A diverse variety of sources
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think we should be reducing the number of carbohydrates we eat? Are there any that really concern you? Do you think weight gain may be caused by other things? What about the cultural role of food? Is there a particular food or dish you would find hard to let go of if you were to cut out carbs?
For me, I think rice and pasta would be terribly hard to let go of. But brown bread could go! I just don’t find it very appetising 😅.
- EUFIC. Carbohydrates [Internet]. [cited 2020 Oct 8]. Available from: https://www.eufic.org/en/whats-in-food/category/carbohydrates
- Eugene A. Davidson. Carbohydrates – Biochemistry [Internet]. Britannica. [cited 2020 Oct 8]. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/science/carbohydrate
- Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. Carbohydrates and health. Great Britain: TSO (The Stationery Office); 2015.
- NHS. The truth about carbs [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2018 [cited 2020 Oct 8]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/why-we-need-to-eat-carbs/