Simon Hill has completed a Bachelor of Physiotherapy, completed a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate Course at Cornell University and is currently finishing his Masters in Nutrition at Deakin University. He is passionate about making nutritional information simple and accessible so that people can make informed decisions about the food they feed themselves and their family. You can find him at @plant_proof.
Few topics in nutrition are as heavily debated as carbs and their role in our weight matters. One side, some demonise carbs and declare them mortal enemies to weight loss, and on the other side, some recognise the health-promoting benefits of a moderate to high carb diet which favours unrefined sources of carbohydrates.
As a result of this heated debate, a widespread confusion surrounding carbohydrates and their importance for our health and weight has ensued. Are carbs good? Do they cause weight gain? Do they cause spikes in insulin? How can they be good if I feel so bloated after eating carbs?
Weight gain comes down to basic principles of energy balance: if we consume more calories than we burn, we put on weight. In light of this, ANY food can cause us to gain weigh—even vegetables and fruit—if eaten in excess.
So, while eating an abundance of carbs may lead to weight gain, it is not the carbs in themselves that are to blame but rather the caloric surplus. This was proven recently by a major systematic review which compared users on a low-carb vs a diet richer in carbohydrates and found that at the same caloric intake levels, it made no difference whether subjects were consuming carbs or not.
Besides not doing us any particular favours in terms of weight loss, in the long term, a low-carb diet could result in inadequate fibre intake, which has been linked to a range of health issues from increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and overall heightened risk of mortality.
However, it is essential to distinguish between refined and unrefined carbohydrates—remember, not all carbs were created equal! In fact, the major culprit behind the demonisation of carbs is due of the broadness of the term: think about it, a carb-rich food is everything from whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables to refined white bread, pasta, pizza and pastries.
Typically, the issue with the latter refined version is that these foods have been stripped of fibre and contain added sugars, contributing to an overall lower nutritional value compared to carbohydrate whole foods in their original form. There is, in fact, plenty of evidence suggesting that a high-refined-carb diet is just as bad as high-fat diets in terms of disease risk: when low-carb/high-fat versus high-carb diets were compared in subjects, studies found no difference in terms of disease risk or mortality if the high-carb group was eating a diet rich in refined carbohydrates.
However, when the high-carb subjects ate a diet rich unrefined carbohydrates, their risk of disease and mortality dropped. In essence, this confirms that the source of carbohydrates matters more than the quantity. Adding to that is the findings of a 2019 scientific review showing adequate dietary fibre intake from whole plant foods rich in carbohydrates, significantly reduces one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal and breast cancer.
Therefore, for optimal health, it’s important we choose the right type of carbohydrates: unrefined, wholefood options which are packed with fibre and nutrients to deliver a filling and nutritional punch! These foods are fibre-rich which increase satiety and help boost our gut health. Stick to wholefood sources of carbohydrates such as whole grains (oats, brown rice, quinoa etc), legumes, fruits and vegetables and limit anything that has been heavily processed.
In summary, if we are trying to lose weight, as long as we’re in a calorie deficit, carbs aren’t to be feared—they should be welcomed! Instead of blaming them for our weight gain, we should enjoy wholefood and nutritious carbohydrates as part of a balanced healthy diet, and limit ultra-processed refined ones.