Myth Busting – Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates tend to have a bad reputation, with crash diets and catchy sayings such as ‘no carbs before marbs’ it can be nutrient people are afraid of. However, carbohydrates are essential for our body as they are converted in to glucose which is used by our body for energy and keeps our organs and muscles functioning. So, why do we get so scared of them when they are our bodies main source of energy?! Knowledge is power and so before you start to cut the bread out or think fruit is just as bad as a chocolate bar lets find out more about them.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates come in two overarching forms, there are simple carbohydrates (free sugars) and complex (starchy) carbohydrates.

Simple Carbohydrates sources are fruit, vegetables, milk and milk products.

Complex Carbohydrates sources are beans, wholegrains (bread, pasta) rice and vegetables.

All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in our body. However, the simple/free sugars break down more quickly whilst complex carbohydrates break down over a longer period.

If we cut carbohydrates out of our diet or cannot get enough from our diets due to being malnourished our bodies turn to other sources. This may mean our bodies start converting fatty acids into energy. Using fatty acids as energy may increase ketone levels which in some circumstances can be harmful. Our brains preferred energy source is glucose and so when this is not available it has to adapt to using the ketones, whilst this is happening protein is broken down therefore potentially resulting in muscle loss.

Sources of carbohydrates:

Starchy, wholegrain foods are a great source of carbohydrates, they can be high in fibre and carry health benefits when consumed in a healthy, balanced diet. Foods such as wholegrain pasta, rice, grains, cereals, and wholemeal bread contain additional nutrients such as fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins too. Teaming complex carbohydrates with protein, fruit/vegetables and healthy fats are a great way to leading a healthy, balanced diet.

Sugars can be a confusing topic and has been covered by a previous blog but here is a little recap. Free sugars are sugars that are added to food or can be found naturally in honey or fruit juices. The government have recently made recommendations that we try to be aware of free sugars and try to limit our intake. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) state that an adult should be having around 30g free sugars per day which is around 7 teaspoons as they are high in energy however, have very little nutrient value.

It is important to note that free sugars do NOT include sugars naturally found in milk, fruit or vegetables.

Portion Sizes:

Portion sizes tend to cause confusion amongst the general public, everybody is different and so will need different amounts. The BDA state “As a general rule, a portion about the size of your fist is an appropriate meal time portion of carbohydrate. This can then be adjusted depending on your activity levels. According to scientific experts around half of our energy intake should come from carbohydrate”

Low carbohydrate diets:

Carbohydrates are one of the first nutrients people turn to when looking to lose weight, at first people may see weight loss but this is often associated with water loss (as carbohydrates bind to water molecules) however, maintaining a low carbohydrate diet is rarely sustainable and is not recommended for a healthy, balanced diet. As after all we eat food, not nutrients so cutting foods that contain carbohydrates out may lead to deficiencies in micronutrients. It is always worth looking at portion sizes, but this is the same for all nutrients, as carbohydrates gram for gram have less calories than fat.

What is glycaemic index?

The GI (glycaemic index) is a measure of how fast glucose from food is released into the bloodstream. Carbohydrates can be rated on their GI level due to how quickly they affect the sugar levels in the blood.

Low GI foods cause blood sugar levels to rise and fall slowly and are more likely to be foods such as some fruit and vegetables, beans and wholegrains. High GI foods release sugars a lot quicker however, it is important to note that just because a food is considered low GI it doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthier. Bupa use the example of how parsnips have a higher GI than chocolate and ice-cream even though parsnips are the healthier option so, it is important to bear that in mind when using the GI measure of carbohydrates.

In summary there is place for carbohydrates in the majority of diets, of course there are people who have to monitor their intake due to conditions such as diabetes but for the general public carbohydrates should not be a scary food source. They contain lots of other nutrients such as fibre which is great for a healthy gut and heart. Being mindful of the portion sizes is important but this goes for all foods and finding what works for you, your lifestyle and activity levels.

To find out more on carbohydrates and achieving a balanced diet, the British Dietetic Association have a great website or you can seek advice from a Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist.


Bupa, British Dietetic Association, NHS

Photo Credit – The Pulse

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