Science has found that most of us eat too much sugar and too little fibre, so could slashing our carb intake help us become healthier and fitter, or is the ‘no carbs before marbs’ culture putting us in danger of losing our gains? RSNG talked to Spoon Guru nutritionist Amine Ould-Laib to find out...
RSNG Why do you think have carbs become a contentious issue?
AMINE OULD-LAIB, NUTRITIONIST ‘In the 80’s all the research coming out focused on fats being detrimental to health and how a low-fat diet would benefit our health. Now that the focus has moved on from fats, carbs are being targeted. For the most part I think the celebrity culture of juice fasts, ‘no carbs before marbs’ and other fad diets has played massively into this. In the wider society carbs seem to be regarded as the main barrier to a beach-bod.’
‘A low-carb diet will typically be less than 150g of carbohydrates a day’
RSNG Are we all, in general, eating too much of our calorie intake as carbs?
AO-L ‘I think this varies from person to person. Carbs add up very quickly if we start counting all the snacks we have throughout the day, whether its doughnuts or biscuits a colleague brings into the office, or the Thai curry we have at lunch. So, there’s definitely the potential to consume too many calories as carbs.’
RSNG What counts as a low-carb diet?
AO-L ‘A low carb diet is where carbohydrates are reduced in order to reduce calorie intake. This will vary for individuals depending on factors like height, weight, lean tissue mass and activity level. Typically this will be less than 150g of carbohydrates a day.’
RSNG Should we cut carbs and if so, what are the benefits?
AO-L ‘For many people, cutting carbs is a useful tool to reduce their calorie intake, since they are very easily indulged in. The recent National Diet & Nutrition Survey data shows that we consume too much sugar and too little fibre. Therefore, most people would be better off by simply replacing carb foods that are high in sugar, with those rich in wholegrain. This provides the benefit of added fibre to our diet, which nourishes the natural gut bacteria and reduces the risk of bowel cancer.'
‘Being carb loaded is definitely the best condition under which to train’
RSNG Are carbs essential for training and brain power?
AO-L ‘When carbs are consumed, the body turns them into muscle glycogen where they are stored, and are the go-to energy source for muscles. So, being carb loaded is definitely the best condition under which to train. As for brain power, this is very subjective. Some people find they are much more focused when they are eating carbs normally. Others find that they can avoid the post-lunch 3pm slump by reducing carbs at lunch, myself included. Research has shown high intake of carbs can reduce anxiety, so each person should do what feels best for them.’
RSNG What are the most nutrient-dense carbs?
AO-L ‘Wholegrains are by far the most nutrient-dense carbs. These include brown rice, wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta, whole oats, quinoa, freekeh and many others. These are packed with fibre, as well as a whole host of vitamins and minerals, and not to mention soluble and insoluble fibres, which are invaluable in keeping you satiated and nourishing the important natural gut bacteria.’
RSNG Is sugar the enemy?
AO-L ‘For very overweight or obese individuals, or those with diabetes, then yes. These individuals should be under the supervision of a dietitian who can safely monitor any lifestyle changes made. The SACN sugar report recommends that no more than 5% of daily energy intake should come from free sugars. It also shows that we still consume many empty calories in the form of high sugar foods and drinks – as much as 11% of our energy intake is from free sugars.’
‘This only has the effect of rapidly spiking blood glucose and insulin levels. When muscle cannot store any more carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, the extra calories are deposited into fat tissue. So it would be wise for us to reduce our sugar intakes.’
RSNG What about the fructose in fruit? Is that to be avoided too if you are looking to ‘cut carbs’?
AO-L ‘Much of the fructose present in fruit is found inside the plant cell, which has a cell wall made of cellulose. Humans cannot digest cellulose, which is a major constituent of plant foods. This means that much of the fructose we consume is unavailable – the body cannot access it. Instead it passes through to our gut where it is fermented by the gut bacteria. Additionally, the nutritional benefits obtained from fruit, such as fibre and vitamins, greatly negate the effects of the carbs consumed.’
‘One technique that’s often used with great effectiveness is carb cycling’
RSNG How can we adjust our carb intake to our activity levels?
AO-L ‘If you are looking for a technique, one that is often used with great effectiveness is carb cycling. This works on the principle that carbs are an energy source, and that one should only fuel as much as one needs each day, in order to avoid overconsumption of calories. People would increase carb intake on days where they’ll be more active – like going to the gym – and reduce carb intake on a rest day. This way the body always has the fuel it needs without overeating or undereating.’
RSNG What’s more important to achieving fitness and weight goals – fuelling exercise or cutting carbs?
AO-L ‘I think it is a combination of both, really. You need enough energy to actually do the workout. Unless you have rock-hard discipline, training whilst in a deficit is very tedious, particularly if done for prolonged periods of time. At the same time, the principle of calories in versus calories out still applies. You either need to consume less calories or increase energy expenditure to lose weight, so different individuals may go about it in different ways.’
RSNG What about building muscle? Can you cut carbs and still add lean muscle tissue?
AO-L ‘If you are overweight and stepping foot into the gym for the first time, you can most definitely cut carbs and eat a caloric deficit whilst adding lean muscle, provided your protein intake is adequate. The body has enough energy reserves to help build muscle. However, if you are already quite lean then cutting carbs would not be very helpful and the lack of calories may lead to muscle loss.’
RSNG Do you think that we spend too much time looking for ‘one size fits all’ solutions rather than treating ourselves as individuals? And if so how can we get better at listening to our bodies?
AO-L ‘Personally I do believe we spend too much time looking for a generic, cookie-cutter approach. Bodies are very unique and what may work for one person may not necessarily work for another. It’s up to the individual to determine what works best for them, within reason.’
‘Mindfulness is a skill that many of us lack, yet is something most of us would benefit from. Taking a moment out of our daily lives to slow down, breathe, relax, and pay attention to what our body is telling us, can come a long way to helping people eat in a healthier manner. I find the Intuitive Eating approach, advocated by Laura Thomas PhD, to be incredibly useful.’
WHAT NEXT? Find out more about carb cycling with this handy breakdown.
Spoon Guru is a London-based technology startup that has developed a unique food search and discovery engine to cater for individuals with multiple or complex search requirements
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
Follow the writer @the_adventure_fella