Over the past 20 years many people have worked themselves into a frenzy over carbohydrates, eliminating them from their diet altogether and following a low-carb lifestyle. The term 'carbophobe' was coined to describe those people who became convinced that carbs were some sort of physique destroyer.
It's true that a low-carb diet (one that omits or severely limits carbs) will trigger an initial drop in weight. This is attributed to a loss of glycogen in the muscles, a drop in the body's water content and a loss of some lean muscle tissue.
This initial weight loss leads to a feeling of success, so people think a low-carb lifestyle is a good thing - that they've discovered a diet that truly works and that going low-carb will keep them at a low weight.
But the body is clever at adapting and balancing things out, so before you know it the lost weight returns, often with a few extra kilos. That's why low-carb diets often fail.
Why You Need Carbs in Your Diet
Let's take a closer look at carbs to better understand their role - why we need them in our diet for optimal nutrition, what occurs when our body doesn't have enough of them and how to include the right kinds in your diet for maximum benefit.
The belief underlying the recommendation to go 'low carb' is that carbohydrates in our diet cause weight gain. This is entirely misleading because weight gain comes from consuming too many calories - not from any specific type of food.
Calories can come in the form of carbohydrate, fat and protein, and all three macronutrients can be stored as fat if we eat too much of them in our diet. Michelle Bridges understands this and that is why "smart" carbohydrates are part of 12WBT's Nutrition Plans.
These are put together in line with recommendations in the Australian Dietary Guidelines - see our article on Healthy Foods to find out more.
Carbs are essential for a well-balanced diet and healthy body. They provide the body with energy, which is important for our daily functioning.
They provide the only fuel source for many vital organs including the brain, central nervous system and kidneys. So having a diet that's too low in carbs means certain organs and systems suffer.
A Low-Carb Diet Leads to Low Energy
Carbs are broken down into glucose during digestion. The pancreas then secretes a hormone called insulin to help transport the glucose from the blood into the cells.
Without glucose our body becomes lethargic, our brain fails to concentrate, and dizziness and nausea can set in.
It's clear that carbohydrates are an essential part of our diet and that by going low-carb, our overall health and vitality suffer and we'll feel low in energy and mood.
Research into diets has revealed some rather concerning findings. Low-carb diets rarely lead to long-term weight loss and if carbohydrates have been substituted with saturated fats (for example, replacing muesli for breakfast with fried bacon) this can lead to serious health problems.
An increased likelihood of heart disease and bowel cancer are two frightening examples of what can happen if you decide to go low-carb.
With a build-up of saturated fat in the arteries and a lack of fibre-rich whole grains to keep the bowel moving nicely, opting for a diet that's low-carb and high in saturated fat is not a winning formula.
How Carbs Help You Train
Including carbs in your diet is also critical for training and sports performance. They're the preferred source of energy for the muscle cells, while for people wanting to increase muscle bulk, they promote protein retention and synthesis.
Cutting them from your diet means your training and muscle development would suffer.
Following a diet that's low in carbs makes exercise more difficult, because the muscle glycogen is depleted.
So by going low-carb you're more likely to tire faster, your endurance will also be low and you're less likely to engage in regular, daily physical activity because you'll feel extreme fatigue.
A lack of carbs over time causes the body to become "carb depleted" and the body is forced to rely on other sources of fuel, such as fat.
This means a low-carb lifestyle can lead to metabolic changes that are seriously dangerous for some people with diabetes, for example.
Carbohydrates have the ability to stabilise our blood glucose levels, or they can send a person through a dangerous series of peaks and troughs. It's therefore important to know that not all carbs are the same.
Instead of going low carb, it's best to maintain a steady stream of slowly released carbohydrates into the body rather than rapid influxes that overload the system. And that means including the best kind in your diet.
The key for maintaining a healthy balance (and sensible weight loss) is to choose smart carbs, and Michelle Bridges is a big fan of adding these to your diet.
You want to choose carbs that are the least processed - unrefined and closest to their natural state.
These include many whole grains, such as oats, barley, legumes (beans and lentils), buckwheat and quinoa, and wholegrain products such as wholegrain breads and wraps.
Many other carbohydrate foods are also slowly released, due to certain characteristics of the food that slow the process of digestion and absorption.
Good ones to include in a healthy diet are pasta, dairy products, fruit and certain types of rice, such as doongara, basmati and steamed brown rice.
Look for high-fibre options and products labelled "low GI" to add to your diet, as they will be released slowly.
For more information, see our article about healthy food and nutrition.
Healthy Carb Options
Let's look at some sensible carb options that are easy to include in your diet. The small selection of meals below is part of the extensive 12WBT Recipe Index.
They enable successful and sustainable weight loss and all contain adequate carbs for a healthy diet, while being low in calories.
- Bircher muesli
- Baked beans with avocado toast
- Boiled egg with salmon and avocado toast
- Curried chicken and chutney wrap
- Ham and salad wrap
- Crunchy quinoa salad
- Roast vegetable and chickpea salad with dill yoghurt dressing
- Garlic prawns with rice, lentil and green bean salad
- Caramelised pork with sweet potato mash and apples
- Mushroom and basil risotto with baby spinach
Snacks are a vital part of a healthy diet, and similar rules apply to these as for main meals. The timing of when to eat carbs can really make a difference to your energy levels and minimise the effects of fatigue.
Michelle recommends eating two snacks a day, as this will not only keep hunger at bay but can also assist that steady stream of slowly released carbs and stop you hitting energy highs and lows during the day.
Healthy snacks to include in your daily diet include freshly sliced fruit with low-fat yoghurt or a slice of raisin toast with ricotta. By combining carbs with protein, the desired "steady stream" is achieved.
In a balanced-carb diet, the combination of carbs and protein enters the bloodstream over a longer period than, say, a slice of white toast with jam.
To keep an eye on the amount of carbs and other nutrients you're consuming each day, try keeping a food diary and start following some key healthy eating habits.
Say No to "Low"
If you've been wearing that "carbophobe" hat since 1996, then it's time to rethink your motives for following a low-carb diet. The right kinds of carbs can set you on a path to being the best version of you.
Your body will benefit from a diet high in fibre, and a steady flow of glucose into your bloodstream will minimise those peaks and troughs in energy.
The intensity of your training sessions will improve from following a balanced-carb diet and, as an added bonus, your brain will think more clearly.
A Balanced-Carb Diet Boosts Your Vitality
For too long the carbs in our diet have been blamed for a global increase in waistlines. Instead of cutting them completely, opt for minimally processed carbs and whole grains and ditch the highly refined ones. Incorporate smart carbohydrates in your diet and feel your vitality soar!