Carbs Aren't the Enemy: The Good Carbs That Make Up a Healthy Diet
Somewhere in the last few decades, carbs suffered some bad PR. Many people are afraid of them but as our Head Nutritionist and Sports Dietitian, Ryan Pinto, tells us, they’re actually a very helpful energy source. Check out his rundown of which types you should eat and how much you should be eating.
- Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients that make up the food we eat, along with protein and fat. They all provide our body with the energy we require to function.
- Whole carbs are good carbs and refined carbs are bad carbs. Whole carbs are a good base for your healthy diet.
- Carbs make up almost half of the diet of most Australians according to data pulled from the National Health Survey conducted in 2017-18.
- Only 5% of Australian adults get their recommended daily intake of 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables per day.
- Fibre is an immensely important factor in maintaining good gut health; its main function being to build and support a good biodiversity within your gut.
- It’s important to plan your week, both nutritionally and in general so you know when you’ll be eating and what you’ll be eating.
- Simply speaking, the more stressed you are or the more exercise you do, the more carbohydrates you should eat.
- A good base to start with is to eat around 30-60g of carbs per main meal and around 15-30g of carbs per snack.
Ah, the humble carbohydrate. Just uttering the word can evoke feelings of tremendous joy in some and sheer fear and guilt in others. The perennial question seems to be, “To carb or not to carb?” Not since coriander or pineapple on pizza have we been more polarised by a type of food.
Carbs can completely rule a person’s life and bring them to tears, so it should be asked, why are people so afraid of carbs? Are they something we need to completely avoid? Or are they good for you and we’ve been tricked all along? Is there a way to achieve a happy balance and live happily ever after with carbs? Let’s find out.
What are Carbs?
Carbs are one of three macronutrients from which food is made. It can be broken down into three main forms (sugar, starch and fibre) and is the body’s preferential fuel source to produce energy. It does this by breaking down to glucose, which is then used by our cells during energy production. Fibre is the only exception to the rule, as it cannot be broken down and used to produce energy, so its main role is to maintain a healthy digestive system by fuelling the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
But let’s clear up a few things around nutrition first. We don’t eat carbs, we eat food. Food is made up of different proportions of carbs, fat, protein and fibre, with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals also present. Largely, it’s these factors and the proportions of each consumed that can determine a person’s overall health and wellbeing.
If our diet consisted of carbohydrate-only foods, we’d be eating the following:
- Plain White Bread
- Fruit and Fruit Juices
- Soft Drinks
- White Rice
Not super exciting, right? This is why most of us don’t have a diet predominantly made up of these foods. If it did only consist of these, we would, firstly, be quite malnourished and secondly, feel incredibly sick, weak and tired.
Many people tend to think of high carb foods as:
- Ice Cream
- Pasta Dishes
While these foods do contain a higher proportion of carbohydrates, they also contain high amounts of fat and tend to be devoid of fibre and nutrients. Not only do these foods contain a higher amount of calories, they’re also processed.
This means your digestive system doesn’t have to work as hard to digest your food. Consequently, your body becomes free to digest food at a quicker rate. This results in hunger signals rising more often throughout the day and can lead to weight gain over time.
Should We Consume Carbs Every Day?
Research suggests that the majority of Australians already are!
Carbohydrates generally make up almost half (45%) of what we eat in our diets. In fact, data from the 2017-18 National Health Survey found that only 5% of Australian adults consume the recommended daily intake of 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables per day.
This correlates with our country’s collective waistline being on an ever-increasing trajectory. Our intake of carbohydrates comes largely from processed foods and sugary drinks, rather than wholefoods such as fruits and vegetables.
Is the question then, not if we should really be consuming carbohydrates on a daily basis but rather, what type of carbohydrates should we be consuming on a daily basis?
Foods containing healthy amounts of carbohydrates along with protein, fat, vitamins and minerals should be the main focal point and foundation of a person’s diet. These foods include:
- Wholefood types of carbohydrate such as wholewheat pasta and brown rice
- Wholemeal and wholegrain sourdough
- Plant-based carbohydrates e.g. vegetables such as potato, sweet potato and pumpkin
- Fruits and most other vegetables
These types of carbohydrate contain loads of natural fibre, which helps to build and strengthen many different aspects of your gut health and immunity. Research has shown time and again that if your intake is predominantly made of the above carbohydrate sources, you tend to be healthier and as a result, live longer.
Why is Fibre So Important?
In short, the main function of fibre is to build and support the gut by maintaining a great biodiversity of good gut bugs within your digestive system. The more fibre you consume on a regular basis, the better your immune system will be.
Apart from improvements in gut health, fibre also has some great long term benefits in reducing the risk of conditions such as constipation, Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.
How Many Carbs Should I Eat in a Day?
This question recalls the old adage, “How long is a piece of string?” There are many, many factors that comprise the answer, and many more questions you must first ask yourself before a concrete answer can be reached. What we’ll do is provide an answer that can actually help with your meal and menu planning.
The key word here is plan. Plan, plan, plan. Planning what your week looks like from, not just a nutritional and/or exercise perspective, but also life in general is key. Taking a simplistic view of things, the more stressed you are or the more you exercise, the more carbohydrates you should eat.
Think of carbs as petrol for a car; the further you drive, the more petrol you’ll need. If your car sits in a garage all day and doesn’t move, then your need for petrol is much lower.
For those who’ve started an exercise regime in the new year, you may need to increase your intake of carbohydrates slightly. This will enable you to exercise consistently throughout the week without wearing you out to the point of exhaustion.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that just because you’ve gone for a 30 minute walk, you can now gorge on processed foods that are super high in calories. Every now and then, yes, you should treat yourself; it’s important to do so.
But healthy nutrition principles dictate that for the majority of meals and snacks, your intake should come from the aforementioned list of wholefood carbohydrate sources.
Sticking to these guidelines will mean you’re eating foods lower in calories. This will allow you to have bigger portion sizes and can mean inadvertent consumption of loads of fibre throughout the day. This will help to keep you full and fuel the growth of your good gut bugs.
When looking at how many grams of carbohydrates you should consume throughout the day, it really does depend on your activity level. The more active or stressed you may be, the more you’ll need.
We can also look at a “macro planning” perspective i.e. planning the amounts of macronutrients - protein, fat, carbs - you’re putting into your body each meal/day/week. A good base example to start with is to eat around 30-60g of carbs per main meal. Add to this around 15-30g of carbs per snack, timing this snack around 60-90 minutes prior to exercising.
This obviously changes from person to person but it’s a good starting point, which you can use to see how your current intake stacks up. Generally, it should provide you with enough fibre to keep you satisfied, especially when paired with 30-40g of protein in conjunction.
You can view the rest of your plate as an opportunity to change your body composition. For those looking to gain weight, you can increase your carbohydrate portion. Then add some veggies and dressing to make sure you meet your calorie intake for the day. You may also choose a type of protein with a slightly higher fat content to assist with boosting your caloric intake.
High fat proteins include:
- Oily fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel
- Cuts of meat and poultry that contain high amounts of fat such as chops, untrimmed meat, chicken thighs and shanks
- Whole eggs
For those looking to lose weight, opt to fill the rest of your plate with non-starchy veggies or salad to boost your fibre intake and reduce the total caloric load of your meal. Be mindful to choose slightly leaner cuts of protein; that’ll assist with keeping the calorie count in check.
Lean cuts of protein include:
- Chicken breast
- Cuts of meat such as loin and scotch fillet, along with trimmed cuts of meat
- White varieties of fish
- Egg whites
- Tofu and tempeh
- Soy beans
Ultimately, no, you don’t need to be scared of carbohydrates. They’re not the enemy and in many cases, are even a friend. The key is to familiarise yourself with the types of carbs you should be eating.
If you know when you’re consuming processed carbs, you can start to change or swap to a higher fibre, less refined version of this high carbohydrate food. By consistently eating mainly wholefoods, you can still enjoy delicious carbs on a daily basis without feeling guilty. It’ll also ensure you’re fuelling your body with the right nutrients.
Looking to load up on the right kinds of carbs now? Check out our High Calorie Best Seller Pack and fuel up.