Low-carb high-fat and keto – heard of these terms lately? I’m not surprised! Keto, short for ketogenic, is the latest fad diet that everyone is talking about. So, are carbs bad? Should we be avoiding them? It depends… let me explain.
Many foods are considered a carbohydrate, and many foods contain a proportion of carbohydrate whilst also containing a mix of fats and protein. When you hear the word ‘carbohydrate,’ what foods do you think of? You may think of potato, bread, breakfast cereal, pasta, rice, chips, confectionery (chocolate, lollies) oats…. But other foods containing carbohydrate also include dairy products, starchy vegetables (sweet corn, sweet potato, yam, parsnip, taro), and fruit.
However, when people think of carbs they often think of them in a negative context. However, carbs, like fats, are certainly not made equal and there are healthy ones and others best to limit. For example, you cannot compare potato chips with wholegrain oats, or chocolate biscuits with fresh fruit. When we think about it, most carbohydrate foods are plants or come from plant sources, and we know that plant foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre, which are crucial for good health. In fact, wholegrains, not refined grains, can help lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and even some types of cancer. Furthermore, as the grains in wholegrain sources of carbs are still intact they offer whole nutrients and tonnes of fibre which often leads these wholegrain carbs to have less impact on blood glucose levels and the fibre also enhances your gut microbiota.
When we eat carbs they are broken down in the digestive tract to glucose which then enters the bloodstream. Our body responds to the increase in blood glucose levels by releasing a hormone called insulin produced in our pancreas. Insulin's purpose is to act like a key and open the doors into cells throughout the body to let the glucose inside and provide the cells with energy. Insulin also stores glucose in the liver and a small amount in the muscles for later use in between meals in a molecule called glycogen. Insulin also promotes muscle and fat synthesis and is abundant in the fed state, and minimal during the fasting state.
People going on very low carb diets, or even going the extra-mile and undertaking the ketogenic diet often see health benefits because they are generally cutting out all the highly processed and refined carbohydrates they were previously eating, such as your cookies, chocolate bars, sugar-sweetened beverages, juices, crisps, pizza, alcohol, white bread, muffins, scones… the list goes on. I can almost guarantee that ANYONE who had a mediocre diet containing too many of these highly refined carbs who then swaps these for healthier food choices such as wholegrain cereals and more fresh fruit and vegetables, would see significant benefits in their overall health and body composition (just like they would from the extremely restrictive ‘keto’ diet).
Furthermore, athletes often perform better on carbs as glucose is the body’s go-to fuel for muscles. With low carb/keto diets the body has to utilise fat. From a metabolic perspective, this process is much more ‘clunky’ and less efficient, which could potentially be the difference between a good performance and a personal best. Anaerobic performance has been proven in most cases to always be better with carbohydrate intake. However, for endurance athletes undertaking aerobic exercise, performance may be OK after ‘fat-adaption’ has occurred with a low carb diet (usually 3-4 weeks of low-carb eating), but carbohydrate-fueled exercise is almost always superior in most circumstances. Also, from a practical perspective, consider how you would fuel someone doing an iron man on low carb foods compared to someone consuming carbs via easy to eat gels, bars, etc. Most sports drinks are excellent sources of readily available carbs for working muscles plus the carbs aid absorption of fluid in the bowel which significantly helps hydration status on the run.
Carbohydrates are all broken down into individual sugars, regardless of the form they are consumed in. Don’t waste money on health halo ‘superior’ forms of sugar e.g. coconut sugar, rice malt syrup, or raw honey, these are broken down in exactly the same way as pure table sugar. That hash tag #norefinedsugar you saw on that raw slice recipe may mean there’s no white sugar, but it doesn’t mean there is not already a tonne of sugar from honey, dates, or coconut sugar…which the body treats EXACTLY the same as white sugar.
Society has made eating so complicated, it doesn’t have to be! It seems everyone has to be doing some highly complex diet to appear ‘healthy’ when all they are likely doing is subtracting from their health. Keto may be trendy now, but just like all the other diets over the years, there will be something else soon taking its place and keto will be old news. To put it simply, carbs are a friend if you get to know them, but choose your friends wisely. Wholegrain carbs to include in your diet include kumara/potato (best with skin on), wholegrain oats, fresh fruit (not fruit juice!), brown rice, wholegrain breads (the more grains/seeds you can see the better), kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, and quinoa, to name a few.