The truth about carbs and weight loss

21-Dec 2013, by Lee Sandwith

the-truth-about-carbs-and-weight-lossLargely due to the vast amount of misinformation available on the subject, and infamous low carb diets which have become popular over the years, carbs are an extremely misunderstood entity as many people associate them with gaining weight. But if you’re looking to lose weight, should you cut out carbs altogether?  In this article we’ll take a look at the science behind the infamous carb and make some simple recommendations on what to do and what to avoid if you’re looking to lose weight and adopt a healthy diet.

It’s a fact that eating a lot of carbs can contribute to weight gain, however, only in the same way that if you eat too much of anything which pushes you over your daily calorie requirements you will gain weight. In reality, carbs are essential as they are the body’s main energy source, broken down into glucose & glycogen and either immediately used for energy or stored for later usage. In addition, they play an essential role in muscle growth, maintenance and overall body function making carbs an essential component of any good quality, healthy weight loss plan. In terms of weight management there are some important things to understand about carbs, however, you don’t need to worry about cutting them out altogether as, just as with all of the macronutrients (protein, carbs & fat), it’s all about balance.

It’s really not that complex

There are two different types of carbohydrate, simple carbs and complex carbs, of which you ought to have a basic understanding. Complex carbs are also referred to as starchy foods and are the main provider of dietary fibre. Common foods containing large amounts of complex carbs include wholewheat bread and pasta, brown rice, vegetables and legumes. Refined grain products such as white bread, white pasta, biscuits, pastries and sugary breakfast cereals also contain some complex carbohydrates but are considered to be firmly in the simple carb category.  Simple carbs are largely made up of sugars and are found in both natural and processed foods. Because sugars are easily absorbed into the bloodstream they provide a quick release of energy, but whilst this provides the body with instant fuel it does little in the way of providing energy over a longer period of time.  Due to this, managing your simple carb intake well is essential in any weight loss plan as the energy release is short lived and brings on hunger more quickly. Conversely, choosing complex carbs can help curb hunger for longer and prevent overeating.

As such, when it comes to weight management, the general rule is that complex carbs should be favoured over simple carbs. The exceptions to this are fruit and dairy which are highly nutritious and can be incorporated into a healthy diet plan perfectly well, however, there still needs to be some control due to high sugar content. Ideally, if you’re looking to lose weight, it would be a smart move to cut out white carbs altogether in favour of their wholegrain counterparts. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the occasional treat but, in my opinion, making an informed decision to switch to wholegrain is a no brainer for anyone looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

How do carbs fit into a healthy meal plan?

As I covered in a previous article, calorie intake is the most important factor when it comes to weight loss and weight management. Beyond that, the next most important factor is macronutrient balance, which is essentially the ratio of protein, fats and carbs in your diet. Getting this right is essential as your body needs a good balance of each in order to function normally and it’s critical in ensuring you lose fat instead of muscle throughout your weight loss journey.  To find out how this relates to you, give our online calculator a try to calculate your ideal daily target intake and how this translates into protein, fat and carbs balance.

When it comes to weight loss, it may also be beneficial to consume most of your daily carbs at breakfast and lunch, eating carbs sparingly or not at all in the evening. This may not work for everyone but it certainly is reported to have serious benefits in terms of accelerating weight loss for many people and, in particular, eating carbs just before bed-time is widely accepted as something to avoid altogether. The exception to this is post-workout when you need to provide your body with the required amount of carbs to catalyse the recovery and repair process. This doesn’t matter so much if you’re just doing cardio but, given that carbs play an essential role in muscle repair and growth, it’s critical for anyone trying to build or maintain muscle mass through a weight-resistance programme.

Another approach which may accelerate weight loss is to cut out bread and baked products altogether. Bread can make the body look and feel bloated so if you find that you don’t see much progress this may be worth a try, however, please make sure you don’t misinterpret this with removing carbs from your diet altogether and ensure you replace bread with other quality complex carbs, such as vegetables, brown rice or quinoa and see if that has any positive impact. As with fruit, reducing bread consumption may be a good lever which sits outside the basic parameters of calorie intake and macronutrient balance, especially for people down to the last few pounds. In general, wholewheat products are brown in colour, however, there are a few things to watch out for.

Bread

Not all ‘brown bread’ is exactly how it seems as manufacturers often colour white, less healthy bread with colouring agents to give the impression that you’re buying a healthy ‘brown’ product. This is a very bogus practice to watch out for, especially when buying packaged sandwiches on the go. To avoid this always check the label: you’re looking for 100% wholewheat or wholegrain. 

Breakfast cereals

Most breakfast cereals available in supermarkets are absolute garbage and disgracefully misleading in terms of their health benefits. Many which claim to be ‘wholegrain’ are in fact laced with added sugar and only part wholegrain with the majority of the ingredients coming from simple, white, refined carbs. If you are big into cereals you should consider switching to oatmeal, which (in my opinion) is the only cereal worth considering. Further, most brown, apparently ‘healthy’, cereals such as bran based products are often full of added sugar so do not provide you with the slow release of energy that your body needs to start off your day. If you’re unsure just check the labels and if there are any added sugars you should ditch them altogether. You may be able to find the odd muesli product with no added sugar but you really need to exert some caution due to its deceptively high calorie content. If you’re used to eating sugary, white cereals, thinking that you’re eating healthy food, you have simply been deceived by an extremely unscrupulous food manufacturing industry. Take the power back and remove all of these products from your cupboards; they are bad news.

Vegetables

If you are looking to lose weight, vegetables are your best friend. Low in calories, high in fibre and packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, fresh, good quality vegetables should be at the top of your shopping list. One of the main benefits of including large portions of vegetables in your diet is that you can load up on volume which not only provides your body with good quality carbs, vitamins and minerals but you can trick your mind and body into thinking you’ve eaten a huge meal. In addition, a major benefit is the high thermic effect of vegetables which means due to their high nutritional content, the body uses up a lot of energy during the digestion process. The bottom line is that this means the calories you are consuming are reduced by up to 30% because of the thermic effect. It is also claimed that some fruits and vegetables, such as celery, lettuce and grapefruit have a negative thermic effect as the energy required in the digestion process is greater than the energy contained in these foods, however, there are also counter claims to suggest this is a myth.

There is a mountain of information available on the benefits of vegetables but to keep it simple, mainly due to the thermic effect, just think of it like you can eat as many vegetables as you want. The only group of vegetables to be excluded from this rule are starchy, white vegetables such as white potatoes which should be limited or better still replaced with a healthier alternative such as sweet potatoes. Sticking to green vegetables – such as green beans, asparagus, spinach and broccoli  – would be a sensible move as you can use them to load up on volume tricking your brain into thinking you’ve had a huge, highly calorific meal. Many people baulk at the idea of eating lots of vegetables but if you give it a go for a week it’s a fair bet that you’ll be hooked as the feeling after loading up on healthy veggies surpasses that from starchy carbs by an order of magnitude.

Fruit

Fruit is a tricky one as almost all fruits are packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals so their nutritional value is high. That said, fruit still falls in the simple carbs category as it is full of sugars so doesn’t provide the slow energy release that you get from complex carbs. For most people there should be no problem with eating fruit as long as it forms part of a healthy, balanced diet plan which focuses mainly on the calories in calories out model. However, for people looking to take things to the next level, for example those looking to get that ripped, low body fat look, a completely different approach may be needed. In this case, the best time to eat fruit is just before and just after a workout as, due to its high Glycaemic Index (GI) score, it feeds your muscles with a quick release of energy. The key take away from this section should be that fruit is fine but should be moderated for the reasons outlined above and if you are struggling to lose the last few pounds, reducing fruit intake may be a good lever.

In summary

We’ve just scratched the surface but hopefully this provides some valuable pointers and clarifies a few misconceptions around carbs. The key takeaway is that carbs are an essential part of any healthy, balanced diet, even for anyone looking to lose weight. Any diet plan which promotes the elimination of carbs is questionable at best given that the human body uses carbs as its primary source of energy. Low carb diets definitely work, however, they’re simply not sustainable in the long-term and, in my opinion, should be avoided, especially by anyone doing a lot of exercise. In addition, wholewheat carbs are preferable over white, simple carbs due to the slow release of energy provided which helps to keep you fuller for longer.

This last point accentuates the message I’m trying to send out through ‘ingfit. In order to lose weight and adopt a healthier lifestyle you don’t have to do anything radical like embark on a low carb or an extreme low calorie diet. To make the transition towards a lean body and a healthier lifestyle all you need to do is make a few simple changes to your daily routine based on some very basic knowledge on nutrition and fitness.

There’s much more information available in our eBook so please check that out if you would like to know more. I’ve also put together lots of meal ideas including some other healthy products not covered in this article such as Quinoa and wholewheat Cous Cous which I’ll cover in a separate article.

There are also some more advanced points which you may wish to research, namely Glycaemic Index, Insulin levels and carb timing, the latter of which may be important for those people undertaking a weights resistant programme. These concepts aren’t too important for most people who just wish to lose a few pounds but they may prove essential for people looking at embarking on a more advanced programme. I’ll be publishing articles on lots more weight loss, nutrition and fitness subjects so if there’s anything you’re particularly keen to find out about please leave a comment to let me know.

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