Carbs are not the ENEMY!!!

Over the years I think the media has beaten up carbohydrates leaving us all ‘carbophobics’! They have portrayed carbohydrates as the main culprit of our obesity epidemic never backing up their hype with scientific fact and demonstrating whether they really are the bad guy!

Well my aim today is to prove to you that carbohydrates aren’t as bad as they have been wrapped up to be and they are definitely not the enemy, in fact we need them to provide us with energy on a daily basis.


Why are carbohydrates important?

They are crucial for the body to be absorbing a healthy and well-balanced diet. Carbohydrates provide the body the main source of fuel it requires for many vital organs to function such as the brain, central nervous system and kidneys1.  For this fuel source to move through the body to the cells the digestive system must break down these carbohydrate foods into simple sugars (mainly glucose) and these sugars are then carried to each cell via the blood stream. When inside a cell the glucose will be ‘burned’ alongside oxygen to produce energy.  Any excess glucose is stored within the muscle tissue and liver and will supplement blood sugar levels if they drop between meals or during physical activity2.

Our diet should consist of approximately 45-60% of carbohydrates (protein, fats and discretionary foods otherwise known as ‘sometimes food’ make up the remainder) but the key is to choosing the ‘right’ carbohydrates to form our diet.

 What types of carbohydrates are there?

Simple Carbohydrates – (the ones to have less of – they do play there role in the appropriate environment)

These are refined sugars that have little nutritional value. They are digested by the body more quickly leaving you feeling less satisfied. These are great ‘pick me ups’ or when a quick surge of energy is required so great source before exercise.

It is recommended that a small amount of these foods are consumed. Examples of simple carbohydrates are white bread, crackers, cakes, muffins, sugar, white rice, lollies, soft drinks, biscuits, honey, fruit juice.

Complex Carbohydrates – (the good carbs)

These sugars are more complex and rich with fibre, vitamins and minerals and take longer to digest making you feel fuller for longer. They also play a significant role in producing long term energy.

Examples of these are bananas, oats, beans and lentils, wholegrain breads, whole wheat pasta, barley, brown rice, polenta, rye bread3.

You may hear the use of words such as low GI and high GI foods when referring to the above types of carbs. We will go into this in further detail in next week’s info sheet.


Carbohydrates and its link with weight gain

An unfair tag has been put on carbohydrates over the years with carbohydrates being linked to weight gain when in fact weight gain is a result of consuming more calories than energy exerted which could be a result of any other energy sources such as protein, fat and alcohol.

An interesting survey in the UK found that one in ten women constantly felt bad consuming carbs, one quarter tried to avoid them during the week so they could eat more over the weekend and that they are twice as likely than men to feel guilty about eating carbohydrates even though they are less likely to be overweight.  And no shock that it found that most people were unaware of how many they should be consuming each day, again this comes back to my argument that we need to be better educated about the right foods than simply being told what to do4.


It really comes down to the choices you make when it comes to food. The unfortunate thing about carbohydrates is some can be just too good that they are easy to over-eat, especially those highly processed, like white flour and pasta. So again it comes down to your choices and ensuring you make the right ones. As previously outlined, carbs help you concentrate, they are fabulous brain food, you just need to control your portion sizes and make good quality carbohydrate choices.

If we refer back to the Australian Guide to healthy eating – to be healthy our diet should at least consist of 6 serves of grains, 5 serves of vegetables (6 for men), 2 serves of fruit, 2 ½ serves of lean meat (3 for men) and 2 1/2 serves of yoghurt etc. – based on a male and female 19-50 years.  See here for alternate age groups   Looking at these food groups a lot are linked with the carbohydrate family and now if the science didn’t prove that this was something to take note of to live long healthy lives then I am sure it wouldn’t be endorsed by all of us health professionals now would it5? J

The low down on Low Carbohydrate diets

Very low carbohydrate diets result in the dieter eating lower calories per day and reliant on protein and fat to get them throughout the day with less than 100g of carbohydates contributing to the daily intake. This dieter is unlikely to be meeting their daily nutritional needs containing less fruit and vegetables, less fibre and more saturated fat foods.

As a result the dieter may lose weight because of the restriction in calories and energy (usually this loss is due to loss in water) but in turn the body starts to use the glycogen the body has stored in the liver and muscles to replace what it isn’t getting from carbohydrates in the diet. When these stores have been exhausted the body starts eating away at the fat but not in a good way. This leads to the body developing ketones (as a result of not enough carbs in the body to produce the sugar it needs) which make the body acidic which may lead to metabolic changes within the body.  As a result you may start to feel nauseas, dizzy, lethargic, constipated, and dehydrated with a loss of appetite.1

The long term effects are continuing to be researched but these may include weight gain because when you resume a normal diet you will rebuild some muscle tone, regain water and therefore weight appears rapidly, bowel problems due to the pressure the body has been put under, dieting problems, kidney problems and osteoporosis due to the excretion of calcium from the bones.1

 Best time to eat carbohydrates?

Let’s be honest here your body doesn’t know what time it is!It’s not when you eat but what you eat that counts. Eat more calories than you burn and you’ll get fatter. But late snacking can push your calorie intake over the edge. It’s best to have regular mealtimes so you can keep track and having 10-12 hours without food supports hunger so you start the day with a healthy breakfast. Eating just before you go to bed can hamper sleep patterns in that it messes with your insulin. I’d suggest you don’t eat for two to three hours before bed.

 Athletes and carbohydrate needs.

Carbohydrate availability will determine how well an athlete performs and why sport nutrition guidelines highly recommend intake pre, during and post exercise. The amount an athlete consumes will depend on the stage of competition, an individual’s body mass (BM) and perhaps their individual situation. The following table summarises the recommendations upon which this review is based.6

We will discuss this further in eating before and after exercise blog but to give you an indication of the recommended guidelines are – see below.

Carbohydrate Needs.


Recommended Carbohydrate Daily Intake

Sedentary – low-intensity training


3-5 g/kg BM

Daily refuelling needs for training <60-90 minutes p/day or low intensity exercise

5-7g/ kg BM

Daily refuelling for training > 90-120 minutes p/day

7-10 g/kg BM

Daily refuelling for an extreme exercise program 6-8 hours p/day

10-12+ g/kg BM

Carbohydrate loading for endurance/ultra- endurance events

7-10 g/kg BM

Pre event meal (1-4 hours pre competition)

1-4 g/kg BM


Carbohydrate intake during training and competition events greater than 1 hour

1 g/min or 30-60g/hr

Rapid recovery after training or multi-day competition, especially when less than 8h until next session

1-1.5 g/kg BM for every hour in the early stages of recovery after exercise, contributing to a total intake of 7-10 g/kg BM over 24 hours

 Athletes and Carbohydrate loading

Is defined as the changes to training and nutrition that will increase muscle glycogen stores prior to an endurance event.  

An athlete will load up on carbohydrates (7-12g/kg body weight) while tapering exercise over 1-4 days prior to an endurance event to ensure the muscle glycogen is being stored appropriately.

This type of diet will only benefit those engaging in 90 minutes or longer high intensity exercise such as marathon runners, cycling, triathlon (long distance) etc.7

For an example of a high carbohydrate diet or more information – click here

What about carbohydrates for those with an intolerance?

Something that can be very difficult for the athlete with coeliac disease or equivalent as most of the products on the market have gluten or some type of allergy friendly ingredient. A great summary here by the Australian Institute of Sport for athletes with nutritional issues.7

Funnily enough an analysis in the Amercian Journal of Medical Association has hit the nail on the head.  It has found that it doesn’t matter what diet you are following in fact it is more about being able to follow a healthy eating plan long term and that is what the Wall2Wall Fitness Nutrition Overhaul program is all about!

 Tips for eating carbohydrates wisely:

  • Breakfast cereals should contain oats, barley or bran
  • Breads should be grain or soy based
  • Consume a wide variety of fruit and vegetables
  • Enjoy a wide variety of complex carbohydrates and limit the simple ones
  • Portion sizes are the key
  • Don’t eat high calorie foods just before heading to bed, make sure you have about 2-3 hours between meal and bed times.