You’ve heard all about the high-protein, low-carbs diets. People just love ‘em! The Atkins Diet is the most famous one, with people all over the world who are looking to lose weight turning to protein and cutting out carbs because Mr Atkins told them to.
But if carbs are so bad and, according to some people, so fattening, how come athletes insist that they’re the most efficient source of energy?
And how come respected doctor and author Dr Garth Davis wrote a whole book about why our obsession with protein and hatred for carbs is slowly sapping us of our life force?
The truth lies, as always, somewhere in the middle. Carbs has its pros, and it has its cons. In this article, we’re going to outline arguments from both sides so that you can make your own mind up.
So, What Are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, with the other two being protein and fat. Each of these macronutrients provide your body with the calories and energy that you need to stay vitalised. They are - without exception - your best source for calories and energy.
Carbs specifically are the fibres, starches and sugars that you’ll find in your vegetables, fruit and grains. And although Atkins and others have marginalised them and insisted we can do just fine without them, carbs play a key role if we’re to stay healthy.
But they do still come with a few disadvantages - as we’ll find out. But first let’s start with the pros:
The Pros of Carbohydrates
Carbs Regulate Your Cholesterol
People started losing their mind in the nineties when 'bad cholesterol' hit the mainstream. They cut out eggs, fatty foods and anything that was consider to contain a morsel of cholesterol.
Cholesterol doesn’t get the press it once did, but bad cholesterol is, well, still bad. Moreover, it’s linked to too much fatty meat consumption, as this clogs up your arteries.
Carbs on the hand - which aren’t found in meat - help to regulate your cholesterol, keeping the good cholesterol up and the bad cholesterol down.
Carbs Encourage Us To Eat More Nutrients
When people see you eating a loaf of bread (okay, not a whole loaf, easy there), they might be ready to point out that bread makes you fat because it’s full of carbs. You can always tell when someone has been reading up about the high protein and low carbs diet!
But the truth is that it just depends on the type of bread you’re eating. Pair up two slices of toasted whole wheat bread with your avocados and you’ll be just fine - provided you’re not gluten sensitive. If you are, grain-free or gluten-free is your best bet.
And when you eat more sandwiches, it tends to follow that you get more nutrients. Avocado, peppers, rocket and hummus on toast, anyone?
Carbs Keep You Going
Need enough energy to get you through the day? Complex carbs can help. You’ll find them in foods such as green vegetables, lentils, corn and pasta. Because your body breaks them down slowly, your energy levels are maintained for as long as possible.
This is in contrast to simple carbs, which are broken down quickly, and thus gobble up all the energy super fast. Your body can’t burn it quick enough so it converts to fat to be used later.
The Glymemic Index is a good indicator as to how quickly a type of food is burnt up and covered to energy. In a nutshell, The Glycemic Index is a ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Carbohydrates with a low GI value (55 or less) are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolised and cause a slower rise in blood glucose levels levels. So eat less bagels and more wholemeal bread and you'll be winning!
The Blue Zones Eat Lots of Carbs
Know what the Blue Zones are? The Blue Zones are parts of the world where the inhabitants outlive the rest of us. Okinawa in Japan is a Blue Zone, with the residents here enjoying a greater life expectancy than anywhere else in the world.
And their diet is high in carbs - and low in protein.
We’re not saying you should cut down on protein, of course. We’re just saying that there’s no need to fear carbs so much.
Carbs Build Muscle Mass
You’ve heard that protein builds muscle mass. But without carbs partnering it up, protein is pretty useless at this task.
Carbs and protein are a macronutrient double-team when it comes to building muscle mass. If you skimp on carbohydrates, all the protein you consume will be used to maintain your energy levels instead of working on your muscles.
Remember, carbs are calories. These are your workout fuel. Don’t ignore them!
The Cons Of Carbohydrates
Carbs Can Cause Weight Gain
Okay, so your friend who told you they don’t eat bread anymore because bread makes them fat is half-right: Carbs can cause weight gain. But only if you eat like a maniac, as well as eat the wrong foods, and refuse to exercise.
See, carbs are fuel. But when you consume too much fuel and don’t use it, it’s going to get converted into surplus fat. As explained earlier, Carbohydrates turn into glucose, which your body burns immediately or converts to glycogen to be stored in the muscles and liver. If you eat more calories from carbs or other sources than your body can use, the cells store the excess as fat.
And that’s when people start to get the idea that carbs are evil.
Carbs Can Make You Sleepy
Ever got to 3PM and felt really, really sleepy all of a sudden? It seems to happen to a lot of people.
While there are different reasons for why mid-afternoon tiredness gets us in its grip, one of the most common reasons is a poor diet.
If your meal is too rich in carbohydrates, it can of course make you drowsy. This is because carbs contain tryptophan, an amino acid that makes us sleepy.
Carbs Can Make You Crash Hard
If you’ve ever downed two cups of coffee in quick succession, you’ll have experienced that almost instant rush where you feel more alert, responsive and energetic.
Then, without warning, you crash. Hard.
Simple carbs can have a similar effect. Unlike complex carbs, our body breaks simple carbs down super fast so that it can use them as energy there and then.
This is great if you need a sudden energy kick. But it’s not so great later on when you crash suddenly - which does happen.
You’ll find simple carbs in processed junk food, such as soft drinks and sweets. So stay off the penny sweets!
There you have it, carbohydrates have pros and cons. The cons, however, can be guarded against by being careful regarding what you eat and when you eat. And because carbs are one of the three macronutrients that arm you with enough energy and calories to get you through the day, it’s important that you maintain a regular intake.