30/07/2012 13:58

Carbs explained

Carbohydrates don’t have to be confusing: here’s our guide to the good, the bad and the ugly (or in carb-speak, the simple and the complex)

Pasta (© Rex Features)

It's complicated
You're probably familiar with the phrase complex carbohydrates. These are the good guys - the carbs that our body needs to give us energy. "Good carbs are chemically complex," explains Professor Berit Johansen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Department of Biology. "They release glucose into the bloodstream over an extended time period."

So where can these good carbs be found? "In general, the colourful carbs, like fruits and vegetables, are more healthy ones," explains Professor Johansen. "The colourful carbs are also rich in polyphenols, which are important anti-inflammatory compounds, and the fibre content of good carbs is also good for you."

Good carbs have another advantage - they work wonders when it comes to promoting regular bowel movements, which is vital when it comes to weight loss and a healthy digestive system. "Many good carbs provide insoluble fibre which helps you to excrete any waste from the body," explains Lee Constantinou, Holland & Barrett's nutrition and fitness expert. "This is an important process when it comes to getting rid of built-up toxins. If your goal is to lose fat, it will be in your interest to have regular bowel movements, so consuming good carbs will help out here."

Now for the bad news...
Ever experienced a sudden sugar high? The likelihood is that this was the result of consuming bad, or simple, carbs. Bad carbs are simpler in chemical structure, and contain a higher amount of degradable glucose, which is then released - in larger amounts and over a shorter period of time - into the bloodstream.

However, after the initial high, our sugar levels often crash, leaving us feeling tired and lethargic. Bad carbs also quickly convert to fat. "Bad or simple carbs are found in foods such as potatoes, white flour, sugar and white rice," says Professor Johansen. "The problem with bad carbs is that they are too easily digested, and when such a large amount of energy is not needed, the excess energy is stored on the body as fat.

Gym won't fix it
A few extra hours at the gym won't solve the problem, either. "It's not the case that you can just 'burn off' carbs," explains Lee Constantinou. "Think of the hormonal effect of bad/simple carbs. They give you rapid spikes of insulin, over time causing hormonal problems and making you more insulin resistant. You put yourself at risk of diabetes, which is a common disease in today's society."

However, in a world full of microwave meals and sugary snacks, bad carbs are increasingly hard to avoid. "At present, it's harder to avoid bad carbs since so much food is processed," admits Professor Johansen. "Processed fish or meat products contain less protein and more bad carbs in the form of starch. Additionally, people are eating more pizza, chips, soft drinks and white bread."

Many people underestimate the role carbs play in weight loss - and gain. "The biggest factor with regards to physical weight and mental wellbeing is having control over the amount of carbohydrates the body takes in," says Priya Tew, a freelance registered dietician. "The overeating of the wrong types of carbohydrates causes a rapid peak in blood sugar levels and causes the body to require more sugar. This creates the craving for extra food, leading to the consumption of extra calories, which causes people to put on weight."

Hello wholegrain!
Priya's top tip? "Go wholegrain. Wholegrains have been shown to protect against cancer, obesity and diabetes. Choose wholemeal, granary or multi-grain bread, whole oats, shredded wheat, bran flakes, rye bread, oatcakes, brown rice and pasta, bulgar wheat, quinoa, pearl barley and anything with the word whole/wholegrain in front of it!"

If you're prone to overindulging where carbs are concerned, adding low GI (glycemic index) foods can help to prevent sugar highs - and help you resist the wrong type of carbohydrates when that sugar craving kicks in. "Adding lower GI foods (many of which are wholegrains too) will help stabilise your blood sugars, preventing the peaks and dips that can cause those sugar cravings," points out Priya.

Finally, remember that when it comes to carbs, an all-or-nothing approach will never work, especially if your aim is weight loss. "In helping people to lose weight, my nutritional advice is to never remove carbohydrates," says Priya. "Through avoiding processed carbohydrates, watching portion size and eating lower GI foods, carbohydrates do not have to be your worst enemy when losing weight but are important in achieving a healthy diet."


Further research required on the line 'and more bad carbs in the form of starch'
Starch is the most common name for complex carbohydrate, it's the thing that makes potatoes etc. taste bland and starchy.
The difference between starch and modified starch is huge, often the modification is to break the bonds holding starch together, turning complex long chain carbs into simple small chain carbs or breaking all and making virtual glucose.
Think of carbs in the manner explained here, glucose (sometimes named maltose) is the simplest, imagine this as a bead with no links at all.  Your body can absorb objects the size of one bead instantly.  Eating a load of these means all of the glucose is in your system instantly, creating a spike.
Starch is like a bunch of these beads held together by links, making a stable long chain the body cannot absorb in one go.  The process of breaking these links takes time so you get the glucose beads released over a duration, even if the overall amount of glucose is double that of a sweat treat, you will not get a sudden spike.
Food manufacturers are unfortunately using language to make their ingredients look harmless, modified corn starch looks better than glucose syrup but in reality they are near identical in simple /complex balance.  If a food is only willing to say % carb and not break it down to simple and complex, assume there is a good reason they don't want you to know.
All carbs and any food we use for energy will eventually end up as glucose, the simplest carb.  What you need to be aware of is how rapidly or otherwise that will happen.
Simple carbs, glucose (energy drinks), sucrose (normal sugar), fructose (fruit) quickest
Complex carbs next in line, but if burned by activity will not be converted to fat, good for athletes
Fat, slow to digest and unlock for use in activity.  Nature wants some of this for emergencies and protecting vital organs, will only unlock regularly if you exercise regularly
Protein, has to be converted to something else first.  The body will digest it's own tissue for energy, one way protein is burned as energy, the other is when excess protein is converted to lipoprotein (fat), something the high protein diet squad tend to omit from the pamphlets.
Aim for balance, this is not a beer in each hand, sorry to disappoint.  Look at your lifestyle and genetics and think about your diet sensibly.
If you are a flat out physically active genetic beanpole, like me, you need a lot of food and most of it needs to be complex carbs for steady energy and sensible, un-supplemented protein to repair damaged muscle tissue, 4,500 to 5,000 calories per day has seen my weight stable for almost twenty years.
If you are a sedentary person who thinks walking to the car in the adjoining garage is a workout eat to match this lifestyle, overall balance, nothing in excess and limited intake.  If you are genetically set to pile on weight easily, this will tend to mean eating less than you may feel you want, alternatively find an exercise you enjoy, most have one and are surprised by it, and the benefits are there.


I tend to recommend what I call the 10% diet, it is simple and surprisingly easy to progress.  It is not a quick fix, so if you want to get from a size 20 to a size 12 for your mid August holiday, this will not help.
Cut out 10% of your food across the board without making drastic changes to what you eat.  If you know that you are excessive on one area and think you can reduce this slightly more do so but don't try fixing everything at once.  Increase your activity by 10%, if you do very little this may be as simple as walking up and down your stairs at home 2 or 3 times over the course of a day.
One person I suggested this too found after a month he had lost no weight at all, but far from being disappointed he was encouraged and shocked by this.  It was the first time in a number of years he'd gone a month without gaining weight.
The next step is to do the same again, but start listening to what your body is telling you about food requirements.  When you increase activity gradually, your body will start to tell you what it needs to suit the change in lifestyle and even if you are used to a diet of chips and greasy food, you will be surprised to find the smell of a pasta dish appealing after very little time, most within a few months.
Like most diets this is not something you can keep up indefinitely, you will get to a point where you are losing weight at the highest level you can manage and not put your health at risk.  Once you have reached this point you will likely have tried a few different activities and hopefully have found at least one you enjoy, this can be anything from walking at lunch time to a full on gym program.  The activity you are involved in will drive your requirements and your body will have gotten used to demanding what it wants.
Once close to the weight you want, start increasing the level or food gradually so by the time you have balance you should be at your goal and will know what to be eating and doing to maintain this long term.
Not having a plan for after the diet is the cause of most people yo-yoing and the biggest danger of weight loss programs.
Make your goals realistic, especially timescales.  Allow yourself to enjoy food but sensibly, if you have lost half a pound in a week, a session at an all you can eat restaurant is not realistic, but a small glass of wine or scoop of ice cream will be.
Allow for water, it is a lot faster to gain or lose than fat and why many become disheartened if weighing in daily.  Watch trends not daily values, if you are steadily increasing all of the time, it’s time to act, if you gained 4 days out of 7 but lost overall, you are doing well.

Stay positive as much as you can, anyone thinking that is easy, try it.  Find things you enjoy that involve moving.  Consider the case of a woman who literally couldn’t get out of bed started just by clapping along with workout music, there is no start to small, or activity to inane, try as many things as it takes.  People will give you flack when you do well, especially if they aren’t able to, if you are enjoying what you do, you won’t care, if not they will stop you, so this is incredibly important.  The range of things I enjoy activity wise is huge, but there is a longer one of things I would hate or be indifferent about, trying to do those daily would not be maintained.  If you are sociable, try finding a few friends to do things with, one is an issue if they quit, having a few improves your odds.  If you aren’t and prefer time alone, that is how to train, it’s exceptionally easy to ignore people once you get over the initial attempts.

31/07/2012 14:32

You're advice is ok, but slightly misleading & out of date. Also, some of your comments are chemically incorrect, which will make a big difference to how succesful your "diet" will be.


Watch "Sugar the Bitter Truth" (short version) on you tube & you'll see what I mean.

Some thoughts for those for whom diet means attempting to lose weight and therefore understand why diet has the word die in it.
Many dieting aids are high in sugar, slim fast being only one of many.
Sudden changes in diet are likely to result in you feeling hungry, even if calorie intake is higher than you are used to.
Carbohydrate intake is directly linked to metabolism, so dropping their intake will have the opposite metabolic effect to that desired.
None of what I have said means that slim fast or low carb diets will not result in weight loss, just that there are often better ways.  Especially when you consider that expelling protein requires taking a lot of water with it, and water is heavy.  Anyone wondering how much heavier water is than fat, drop a lump of fat in water and see how much of it stays above the surface, you will get the idea.
Muscle is heavy because it is roughly 90% water, exercise often means not losing weight but losing body fat and gaining lean mass.

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