31 December 2013
Poor ol’ carbohydrate. There’s been a plethora of articles, blogs and opinion condemning carbs in general, sugar in particular, gluten by association, and extolling instead the virtues of low carb living. Carbs have been blamed for obesity, metabolic syndrome and just about every ailment. According to a recent survey, almost half of women feel guilty about eating them! Before you toss out the potatoes and rice, take a moment to reflect on the broad scientific consensus on carbs – and a little common sense….
Many people think cutting out carbs is a good way to lose weight. But there’s nothing magical about low carb diets when it comes to weight loss. Low carb dieters lose weight because they unwittingly lower their calorie intake. By spontaneously eating more protein and fat – both of which are satiating – they eat less. Its as simple as that (yes!).
An excellent analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that it doesn’t matter which diet you follow, they all produce similar weight loss give or take a pound or two. What matters most is adherence i.e. sticking to healthier eating for the long haul.
What makes one diet easier to stick to? It really depends on what you’re used to eating, your food preferences and your family traditions. According to the authors of the JAMA paper, it’s less about the content of the diet, more the context of the dieter. In other words, the most important aspect of dieting is not how much carbs, protein or fat you eat, but changing your mindset and eating behaviour and making it last.
I’ve written previously about why low carb diets are bad news for most athletes. Without carbs you not only limit your capacity to perform high intensity exercise but you also risk muscle loss (or failure to gain muscle). If you attempt high intensity (glycogen-dependent) training with low glycogen, then your body simply breaks down muscle proteins for fuel rather than using it for muscle synthesis. The very opposite of what you want to achieve! Carbs are essential for muscle gain and sports performance.
The problem is carbs have become synonymous with cupcakes, doughnuts and processed foods in general. It’s important to distinguish between carbs found in ‘real foods’ (fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils and whole grains) and highly refined processed carbs. The former are excellent sources of nutrients, fibre and hundreds of phytochemicals, difficult to get from carb-free foods. They also produce a lower (less harmful) glycaemic and insulin response than cupcakes, etc. Unbelievably, there are many people who are now afraid of eating fruit in case they get fat.
Carbs are not evil; they are no more the cause of the obesity epidemic than dietary fat or any other nutrient. Fat gain is caused by a chronic surplus of calories combined with a sedentary lifestyle. Its obvious that eating too much of any food isn’t good for you; there’s little point in demonising one macronutrient. So its time to jump off the low carb bandwagon before everyone gets too food-obsessed.