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Are we finally falling back in love with carbohydrates?


The world of wellness has been obsessed with low-carbohydrate eating for some time now. 

Diets such as Keto, Dukan, Paleo and Atkins continue to be popular approaches for people trying to lose weight and have also helped position healthy fats and protein as the perceived drivers for good dietary health.

But has the trend of cutting out bread, pasta and grains left us lacking in essential nutrients and could the plant food revolution have a vital role to play in bringing back the carb?

Rob Hobson, a leading nutritionist, says healthy carbs should be celebrated

Rob Hobson, a leading nutritionist, says healthy carbs should be celebrated

Rob Hobson, a leading nutritionist, says healthy carbs should be celebrated

Carbohydrates cover a wide variety of foods

The demonizing of carbohydrates as being unhealthy and a group of foods that cause weight gain has given them a bad reputation that has been hard to shake off, but not all carbohydrates are created equally.

Carbohydrates cover a broad spectrum of foods with those such as sugary snacks and meals including pizza or white pasta with creamy sauces at one end, then foods such as oats, brown rice and pulses at the other.

Foods lacking fiber such as sugar and highly processed grains are digested quickly in the body and fail to keep us feeling full for long, cause rapid spikes in blood sugar and can encourage overeating and weight gain if eaten in excess.

Those rich in fiber such as whole grains are much more filling and have less impact on blood sugar levels, which can help with weight management.

Studies show fiber from carbs lowers disease risk

Fiber is one of the key nutrients found in wholegrains such as brown rice, bread and pasta, and appears to be a key driver in the new carbohydrate revolution. 

The increased awareness of plant-based eating that is sweeping the nation may also be helping to change attitudes to carbohydrate foods as they play a pivotal part in maintaining nutritional balance.

Fiber describes those carbohydrate foods which are not digested in the small intestine and diets rich in fiber have been shown to have many health benefits.

A recent study published in the Lancet reviewed the data from over 240 studies and found that eating more fiber-rich whole grains reduced the risk of many diseases. The study showed a 15-30 percent decrease in death rates and a reduced risk of developing heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer in people who ate the highest amounts of fiber in their diet (25g-30g per day). 

Higher intakes of fiber and low glycemic index (GI) diets were also shown to significantly lower body weight, systolic blood pressure and cholesterol.

Fiber is good for digestion and gut bacteria

Fiber is essential for a healthy digestive system and it also helps to support a diverse microbiota, which is the vast ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and yeasts in our digestive system. Soluble fibers called beta glucans are found in carbohydrate foods such as oats and barley and have been shown to help reduce cholesterol on the blood and may help to promote bacterial growth in the gut.

Further to this, researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts also found that a high consumption of wholegrain carbohydrates boosted healthy gut bacteria and certain immune responses.

Carbohydrate foods such as potatoes and white pasta, also help keep the gut healthy as they develop resistant starches after being cooked then cooled, which also act as a prebiotic so should not be demonized. 

What micronutrients can you find in carbohydrate food?

Other health benefits of carbohydrate foods come from their micronutrient content which includes a source of B vitamins (help to maintain healthy skin, eyes, nervous system and release energy from food), selenium (antioxidant that helps to protect cells from damage and supports the immune system), zinc (helps make new cells and promotes wound healing) and magnesium (helps to release energy from food and maintain a healthy nervous system).

Whilst carbohydrates are usually thought to include cereals, potatoes, wholegrains and bread, you will still find a source of carbohydrates in fruits, vegetables, pulses and beans, which all offer an abundance of other health-giving nutrients.

Do you have to eat brown carbohydrate foods to be healthy?

Not necessarily as some white carbohydrate foods are either fortified or shown to have a low GI compared to other similar foods. Another thing to remember is that you can team quickly digested foods such as white bread and pasta with a source of protein and fat, which will slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream.

Although brown bread is best, white still has a lot to offer as it’s fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron and B vitamins. If brown rice isn’t your thing then opting for basmati is a good option as it has a low GI and of course you can also mix white and brown together for different tastes and textures whilst still getting a useful source of fiber.

Potato consumption has also been on the decline but these are a nutritious staple for many families especially the older generation and those on limited budgets. Research published by the University of Surrey reviewed the evidence and showed how white potatoes are a valuable source of vitamins C, B and potassium. They showed how a single jacket potato (about 300g) contains nearly half of the RDA for vitamin C and vitamin B6. By leaving the skins on also helps to retain their fiber content.

Focus on real food and not nutrients

Nutrition and diet are often discussed and presented in terms of nutrients but really it should be about the food.

Much of the confusion about what to eat has stemmed from the over complication of dietary advice and carbs are a good example. 

Carbohydrate-rich foods span everything from white sugar through to brown rice and their impact on satiety and blood sugar levels are part of what defines them in terms of health.

But food choice is as much to do with common sense and it’s clear that a bowl of brown rice will be healthier than a pizza or that a fruit and oat bar is going to offer more nutrition than a bag of sweets, although they are all classed as carbohydrates.

Making healthy food choices doesn’t need to be over complicated by what the food contains, and we should be putting the focus on which foods to include in our diet rather than how a nutrient may negatively impact on health if eaten to excess which can also be driven by the latest trends.