Are you worried that carbs are bad for you or that a vegan diet is too high in carbs? Carbs get a bad wrap, usually by the media or celebrities who are apparently also nutrition experts. Well, did you know that carbs are actually awesome? True story! Here is some super important information on the benefits of carbs, and why you shouldn’t try to avoid them, written by our expert dietitian Josh Reed.
Carbohydrates are one of the three key macronutrients that deliver energy (calories) to your body; the others are fats and proteins. Carbohydrates are manufactured by plants and most are converted to glucose during digestion. Glucose is your bodies primary and preferred source of energy, particularly your brains preferred source which uses an average of 120g of glucose per day; this accounts for about 20% of your total calorie intake. Your skeletal muscles also prefer glucose as their primary source of fuel, storing between 300-400g of it, in the form of glycogen, for later use (1-4). Apart from being your bodies main and preferred energy source, carbohydrates are also essential for good digestion, your gut microbiota health and helping to prevent chronic health conditions.
Contrary to popular myths, carbs are actually really healthy for you, and like everything, the definition is in the detail. You see, the word ‘carbohydrate’ is not a homogenous entity. For example, soft drink is a carb, but so are strawberries. And for this example, a 6-year-old could tell you what’s healthier. So, when a friend, celebrity or even a scientific study tells you that carbohydrates are bad for you, you need to consider what type of carbs? Then answer them, it’s actually the nature of a carbohydrate that will determine whether the carb is health promoting or disease progressing.
Carbohydrate recommendations for the general population
The Food and Nutrition Board for the Institute of Medicine recommend that adults and children aim to consume 45-65% of their dietary energy intake from carbohydrates (1). On average, that’s 220-320g of carbohydrates per day for women and 280-400g for men.
Carbohydrate recommendations for exercising
According to the International Society for Sports Nutrition, athletes require 5-12g of carbohydrates per kilogram of healthy body weight per day. That’s 375-900g of carbohydrates for an average sized male (75kg). General training needs are at the lower end of this range and the upper end is reserved for athletes training at moderate to high intensities for upwards of 12 hours per week (e.g. triathletes) (4). It is important to note that moderate to high intensity endurance activities as well as resistance-based workouts rely extensively upon carbohydrate as a fuel source and as glycogen levels decline, the ability of an athlete to maintain exercise intensity and work output decreases, while rates of tissue breakdown will increase (4). Therefore meeting carbohydrate needs is essential for optimal performance.
The definition is in the detail
To put these carbohydrate recommendations in perspective, you will find 30g of carbohydrates in: two slices of bread or one cup of sweet potato or one cup of pasta or two-thirds of a cup of rice or two pieces of fruit or half a cup of muesli. Take note, all of these foods also deliver a number of other beneficial nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and fibre. In contrast, you will also find 30g of carbohydrates in: one cup of soft drink or one cup of sweet breakfast cereal or three chocolate biscuits. These processed examples are calorie dense, full of simple carbohydrates, as well as nutrient poor. In particular, they are low in fibre and have a high glycaemic index. The glycaemic index (G.I) is a ranking system for carbohydrate foods, based on how quickly or how slowly they cause a rise in your blood glucose levels. Foods with a low G.I are generally higher in fibre and digest more slowly, as a result causing a slower and lower blood glucose level rise. The intake of low G.I carbohydrates results in longer lasting energy, longer satiety, better weight management and lower disease risk. High G.I foods cause sharp spikes in blood glucose levels, poorer energy regulation and greater weight gain and disease risk. Furthermore, unprocessed (low G.I) carbohydrate foods are a rich source of dietary fibre. Fibre promotes digestion, regular bowel motions and a richer and more diverse gut microbiota. But processed carbohydrates (high G.I) in contrast, dampen gut health, influence dysbiosis (see gut health blog), influence digestive issues including constipation, as well as increase your risk for chronic health conditions. To note, dysbiosis is associated with weight gain, poor mental health and numerous chronic health conditions (1-4).
In summary, carbohydrates are a very important food for your body, particularly your brain and muscles. They are your bodies preferred and primary source of energy, plus they contain numerous gut promoting nutrients that strengthen your overall health. The key is to choose unprocessed, low G.I, carbohydrate wholefoods.
To check out our menu, some of which is high carb and some of which is lower in carbs, view our menu here.