A flat lay with a wooden chopping board and many types of carbohydrates surrounding it. "Carbs" is written in flour on the board. The background is white.

Are carbs bad for you?

Ever wondered if that low-carb diet is really necessary? In this post, I break down the truth about carbohydrates and give you the facts so you can make up your mind. Hint: I don't think they are all all bad for you...
Image via: Shutterstock

Ahh, the age old question… are carbs bad for you?

Of course they’re not!

Carbs provide our body with its favourite source of energy- glucose-, along with fibre for our gut microbiome (the good bacteria that live in your large intestine, which help regulate tonnes of body processes).

Here is a great article on the health benefits of carbohydrates from Health Direct.

I believe the confusion comes from people associating high-carb diets with weight gain, and low carb diets with weight-loss.

Image via: Shutterstock

Let’s break this down a little bit.

Our body requires energy, and it gets this energy from food. Therefore, no food can really be “bad”. We all need energy, right?

The 3 sources for energy are called macronutrients, and each of them give you a specific amount of energy in the form of calories:

Carbohydrates (4 calories per gram)
Proteins (4 calories per gram)
Fats (9 calories per gram)

This is where it gets a bit science-y, because eating 100g of rice, doesn’t mean you’re eating 400 calories (100 grams x 4 calories).

In fact, 100g of basmati rice provides 75g carbohydrates, 6g protein, and 0g fat.

So, if we break that down:

75g carbs x 4 calories = 300 calories
6g protein x 4 calories = 24 calories
0g fat x 9 calories = 0 calories

Total calories for 100g basmati rice = 324 calories.

Which is actually not very many calories, considering the average person needs to eat 1800 + calories per day as a minimum.

Image via: Shutterstock

But what about sugar?

What about it? Sugar behaves in exactly the same way as all other carbs.

It gets digested in our stomach and small intestine into single glucose, galactose or fructose molecules, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and taken up by our cells so they can create energy!

The key difference here, is that a food like table sugar is already so close in chemical form to being glucose, galactose or fructose, that it takes almost no time for digestion and absorption to happen.

They’re taken into the bloodstream almost immediately, and it doesn’t use much energy in the digestion process itself.

Note: this is where blood sugar spikes and crashes happen! Quickly absorbed carbs hit the system all at once, and then are swept out all at once by a big hit of insulin.

Image via: Shutterstock

Then we have basmati rice, which consists of long, complex chemical chains of sugars that need to be broken down bit by bit, and will therefore be absorbed bit by bit. It can take several hours for the sugar molecules to be finally broken down and be fully released into the blood stream.

The below image shows the molecular make-up of simple carbohydrates. Now imagine those x 100, and all bundled together- those are complex carbohydrates!

Not only that, but it costs a lot more energy to break down, than the simple table sugar!

Here’s a fun analogy (stay with me):

Picture you have very short hair, and your friend has very long hair, and you’ve been playing out in the wind. Then you both go inside to brush your hair.

Your short hair is brushed in about a minute, no problems.

Meanwhile, your long-haired friend has to spend ages brushing section by section, from the bottom up. Slowly but surely, she gets it untangled, but it takes much longer than yours did. That’s simple vs complex carbs in a nutshell.

So do carbs cause weight gain?

Nope! Quite often, the carbs people think of as being the cause of unwanted weight gain (pizza, pasta), are coupled with high quantities of fat. THIS is where the unwated extra energy comes from, because fats are worth more than DOUBLE the amount of calories than carbs!

Take 2 slices of classic (and delicious) meat-lovers pizza:

56g carbs x 4 calories = 224 calories from carbohydrates
36g protein x 4 calories = 144 calories from carbohydrates
46g fat x 9 calories = 414 calories from fats

With a total of 782 calories, that means more than HALF the calories come from fats, and the carbs are actually LESS than you’d get in 100g of basmati rice!

Image via: Shutterstock

Thus, my friends, carbohydrates are NOT the enemy. It is our food combination choices and lack of understanding about energy balance that causes our unwanted weight gain.

If you remember, food gives us energy in the form of calories, and we use this energy in tonnes of processes within our cells.

What happens if we eat all the energy we need, but then keep eating?

I wish I could say we simply dispose of it, but alas, that isn’t the case. Our body is constantly expecting us to have days of famine, so it works very hard to store unused energy in our adipose tissue (aka fat cells), so we have some “savings”.

Kind of like a bank savings account. If your pay stops suddenly, you have a little in savings to play with.

Of course, as we’ve seen, eating certain foods actually uses more energy to digest than others. And some foods have a higher micronutrient content than others, which also helps to improve cell function and therefore increase how much energy we use overall.

Case in point:

If you eat 500 calories ABOVE what you need each day, you will gain weight.

It’s inevitable (if you don’t, then you’re not actually eating more than you need… #science).

The way we can manipulate HOW MUCH you’ll put on, is with the food choices.

If you ate 500 extra calories of table sugar per day, you would put on MORE weight, than if you ate 500 extra calories of basmati rice per day.

This is simply because of the difference in digestion, and the different hormonal and physiological responses to the foods once they enter the bloodstream.

In summary, carbohydrates are not your enemy; enjoy them in abundance. And if you are going to enjoy some delicious chocolate, make sure to use all of that fast-acting energy to lift heavy, run fast and stay active.

Need some help with cooking? Check out my other posts here or find me on social media- links below!

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Jess Neill

Jess Neill

I'm a Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor and Pre and Post Natal Training specialist. I'm also a mother of two, and I live on the beautiful Northern beaches of Sydney. If you liked this post, don't forget to leave a comment and share! Subscribe to my monthly newsletter for the latest health and fitness news.

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