What are Carbohydrates?
Technically, carbohydrates can be defined as a group of organic compounds that are found in foods and living tissues of animals and plants. Also known as carbs, these compounds are the body’s primary source of energy and can be divided into two main categories; the simple carbs and the complex carbs.
Simple carbs have a basic molecular constitution, usually one or two parts. They are easily absorbed into the body upon ingestion and release sudden bursts of energy that are followed by an equally sudden decline in the levels once the sugars are used up.
A good source of simple sugars would be refined and processed carbs, which are made that way for quicker absorption into the bloodstream. They provide energy faster than natural sugars, which have a lower glycemic index.
Many of these refined sugars, however, are only used as flavor enhancers in processed foods and have little or no nutritional value. They are hence referred to as empty calories.
Simple carbohydrates are also contained in natural sources such as fruits, honey and dairy products.
Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, have a more complicated molecular structure of three or more parts. They take more time to break down into glucose for energy. Foods that contain complex carbohydrates also contain fiber, minerals and other nutrients.
Since complex carbs are broken down slowly, the energy lasts longer than that provided by simple carbohydrates. Sources include whole grains and their products such as cereal, oats, rice and pasta. They are also found in potatoes, lentils, beans and peas.
When ingested, carbohydrates are digested and broken down to glucose, which is a simpler and more absorb-able form. It is afterward transported through the blood to body organs and muscles that break it down further to produce energy. Such organs include the heart, kidney, brain and lungs (x).
Why You Should or Shouldn’t Cut Out Carbs
Dieting has become a widely debated topic worldwide, and any such discussion usually centers on one thing; carbs. For years now, dieticians and nutritionists have been torn between advising their patients to avoid carbs entirely or only eat the good ones. The result is the many diets available for anyone’s selection, including the famous Keto and Atkins diets.
To really understand whether you should or shouldn’t cut out carbs, we will take a look at both the benefits and dangers of eating carbohydrates.
The most important function of carbohydrates in the body is to provide energy. They are the body’s primary source.
Most natural food sources of carbohydrates such as whole grains and vegetables also contain significant amounts of fiber, which not only promotes good bowel health, but also reduces the chances of suffering other health problems such as cholesterol build-up.
Also, if fats and oily foods are replaced with carbohydrates such as whole grains, they can help reduce one’s fat intake, therefore allowing one to maintain a healthy weight. This helps in curbing obesity and other health problems that come with being overweight (x).
The main disadvantage of eating carbs is weight gain. As mentioned earlier, carbohydrates are broken down to glucose, which is broken down further to produce energy. Excess glucose is then stored in organs and muscles in the form of fat, which causes weight gain. It is the basis for many diets that aim to reduce carbohydrate consumption.
Carbohydrates are also dangerous for people with blood sugar problems such as diabetes. When digested, they increase the amount of sugar in the blood, and people with such conditions may not be able to control the levels well (x).
There is even a risk of sugar addiction. Effects may be somewhat similar to those of conventional street drugs (x).
For someone concerned about their weight and levels of blood sugar, the best alternative for staying healthy may be to stop eating carbohydrates and replace them with more substantial sources of energy, like proteins.
Foods to Avoid When on a Low-Carb Diet
Bread and Grains
Bread is widely consumed all over the world. It’s hard to find any household that does not serve it in some form. Whether refined or made from whole grain, bread is mostly made up of carbs. One slice of regular white bread can contain up to 14 g of carbohydrates, and one slice of whole-grain bread up to 17 g. That definitely makes it a poor choice for low-carb food.
This may sound quite ironic considering that some of the healthiest people in the world swear by them. Fruits are good sources of vitamins and fiber, and their medical benefits are far-reaching. Some research even shows that they could lower the risk of cancer and heart diseases (x).
Certain fruits, however, contain high levels of carbs. These include bananas, apples, grapes and mangos. The sweeter the fruit is, the more sugar it has.
Vegetables With Too Much Starch
Also a significant component of many diets, vegetables are preferred for their many vitamins as well as high fiber levels, which are not only helpful in easing digestion, but also in aiding with weight loss and helping to control blood sugar (x).
Some vegetables, however, contain high amounts of starch, which makes for more digestible carbs than fiber. They include corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes and beets.
Just like bread, pasta is a staple for many people across the planet. It’s not only affordable, but also easy to prepare and can be served with a variety of other meals. Many weight-conscious people, however, have made a point to reduce their consumption of pasta or cut it out altogether due to the massive amounts of carbs it contains. Whether whole grain or processed, it makes a poor choice for anyone looking to lower their carb consumption. A healthy alternative would be shirataki noodles or spiralized vegetables.
The ideal breakfast for at least half of the country’s grown-ups and children would be a full bowl of sugary cereal. The sugar alone should be enough to scare off anyone with some serious weight goals. While the excuse would be that cereal (especially whole-grain) provides the body with the much-needed fiber, it would be essential to note that they contain a lot more sugars than fiber. For instance, half a cup of steel-cut oats contains 25 grams of carbs with only 4 grams of fiber.
Foods To Eat When on a Low-Carb Diet
The primary goal of many low-carb diets is to lose weight and promote general health. The aim is to replace carbohydrates with other sources of energy, usually proteins and healthy fats. The basic principle behind it is that if the body receives minimal carbs, it won’t store them as fat. Here are some foods you should consider incorporating in your low-carb diet for the best results (x):
- Lean meat protein — this refers to lean meat such as beef, pork, chicken, lamb, etc.
- Leafy green vegetables such as spinach
- Dairy with substantial amounts of fat such as cheese and butter
- Nuts and seeds including sunflower seeds and walnuts
- Low-carb fruit and berries
Popular Low-Carb Diets
The Atkin’s diet is keen on weight loss and focuses on the consumption of high proteins and fats over carbohydrates. The idea was propagated by Dr. Robert Atkins, who wrote a book about it in 1972. Initially, the diet was considered unhealthy and was even discouraged by many other nutritionists and dietetics due to the high amounts of saturated fats its followers would be consuming. Over time, though, it has gained popularity worldwide, and numerous studies have supported it. It is quite beneficial for people who want to lose weight or lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels (x, x).
The Four Phases of the Atkins Diet
The Atkins comprises of four phases (x):
- The induction phase: This involves eating less than 20 g of carbs every day for at least two weeks. It serves to begin the process of weight loss and also includes taking in high amounts of proteins and fats.
- On-going weight loss: This focuses on balancing the weight loss and bringing it to an even pace. It includes slowly incorporating small amounts of carbs into the diet.
- Pre-maintenance: This is when one is close to their weight goals, and they need to slow down the process of weight loss. It involves slowly adding carbs back to the diet until weight loss starts slowing down.
- Maintenance: This phase involves a great deal of balance where the person eats as many carbs as they can without adding weight.
Also primarily focused on weight loss, the LCHF diet is based on the concept of taking in low amounts of carbs and high amounts of fat. It is also practiced for a variety of other health reasons such as lowering the risk and effects of type 2 diabetes, heart problems and Alzheimer’s (x).
The LCHF diet, also known as the Banting plan (named after William Banting, who played a crucial role in popularizing it) involves eating whole and unprocessed fats and moderate amounts of protein while minimizing the consumption of carbohydrates. Other diets such as the ketogenic and Atkins are also based on this rule, which makes them slight variations of the LCHF diet.
There are no standard meal plans for this diet as it is meant to be adjusted to fit individual requirements. When on it, it is advisable to avoid consuming any foods rich in carbohydrates such as bread and pasta as well as other sweetened and starchy foods (x).
Risks of Low-Carb Diets
While low-carb diets are ideal for weight-loss (and other claimed health benefits), there are also some considerable risks that should not be overlooked by anyone looking to start on them.
Eating little or no amounts of carbohydrates increases the chances of one dying young, especially in their midlife. This has been proved by numerous meta-analyzed studies conducted all over the world (x).
These diets may also significantly increase mortality rates as seen in multiple studies where those affected obtained at least 50 percent of their energy from high-carb foods (x).
The Bottom Line
Carbohydrates may be the body’s primary source of energy, but they can also be blamed for issues such as weight gain and other health problems that result from consuming too much of them. In this regard, experts have come up with low-carb diets that seek to replace them with fats and proteins as sources of energy. Such diets include the Atkins and LCHF diets, which both work on the same principle of consuming low amounts of foods with carbs and more of those with proteins and fat. The different meal plans and the various phases are usually the only differences between such diets; for instance, a low-carb vs. keto diet. They have, however, been associated with some risks such as that of dying prematurely. Therefore, it would be wise to fully understand individual needs and consult with a professional before starting on any low-carb diet.
By: Valentine Kagwiria