Why Carb-Free Diets Aren't Good For You

Filling up on carbohydrates can prevent the body from putting on weight - just choose the right ones


Barley salad. Picture / Babiche Martens.

It is now more acceptable to admit that you’re in AA than to order a pasta dish or to dip into the bread basket. Because carbohydrates are evil, aren’t they?

Thanks to popular carb-avoiding diets such as the Atkins and more recently the Paleo, the dietary virtues of meat and fat has meant shunning starches such as rice, bread, potatoes and pasta - even poor old porridge, once considered the breakfast of champions.

Carb-phobia is rampant. In the last 12 months, bread sales in supermarkets have dropped by 8.9 per cent, according to a report by market analysts Nielsen. Even in Italy, sales of pasta have dropped by a staggering 25 per cent since 2009.

But going carb-free can make people tired, more hungry. “In terms of everyday health, dropping or cutting carbohydrates can make people feel fatigued, because muscles like glycogen as a fuel,” explains Dr Alex Johnstone, a lecturer in nutrition at the University of Glasgow.

Carbohydrates turn into glycogen in muscles, which gives us that “oooomph” needed when we exercise. “Carbohydrate is also the preferred form of fuel for the brain, too,” says Dr Johnstone. It’s one of the reasons people get headachey, foggy-headed or irritable on high-protein, no-carb diets, especially at their outset.

Carbohydrate-free diets have been found to affect gut health, too. “Eating no-carb, high-protein can lead to the production of potentially harmful compounds called n-nitroso in the gut,” says Dr Johnstone. Indeed, studies have found that very high protein diets may increase the risk of colonic disease thanks to such compounds. “Eating slow-release carbohydrates can act as a buffer to help protect the gut from these.”

Indeed, a growing number of nutrition experts are calling time on the “war on carbs”, claiming that eating the right types could be the key to keeping us more satisfied, help us lose weight, increase our energy and even stop food cravings. For these experts, white and processed carbohydrates such as sugars, pasta, commercial breads and doughs, rice and potatoes should be replaced by slowly digestible carbohydrates, served in their most natural states.

READ: The Problem with Modern Diets

“Rapidly-digesting carbohydrates raise insulin levels higher than if you were eating a natural diet,” says Dr David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at Harvard School Public Health and author of Always Hungry. And your muscles love it because it redirects fuel to them. “Insulin is the ultimate fertiliser for your fat cells and directs too many of the calories you’re eating straight into them, then locks the door.

“The key is to eat foods that lower insulin levels by replacing processed carbs with slow-acting carbs,” says Prof Ludwig. “That makes your fat cells open up and release all the pent-up calories into the bloodstream. Your brain says: ‘I like this, I have good access to fuel so I can turn off hunger and cravings’. And your muscles love it because it redirects fuel to them for fitness and exercise and helps build lean muscle.”

Dr Ludwig suggests three servings of slow carbs a day for optimum health and weight loss. Fiona Hunter advises about 50 grams per serving - about a fistful. So, next time you’re in a restaurant, why not order that exotic-sounding grain or bread?

9 Smart Carbs You Can Eat 
Just worked out how to pronounce quinoa? Here are the hottest “new” super-grains:

Amaranth
An Aztec and Inca staple, this tiny grain - which ranges from white and beige to deep red and black - is gluten-free, high in protein, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Great in stews or salads, it boils like rice.

Hulled barley
Only the outermost, inedible hull is removed, it retains more nutrition and is slower-release than pearl barley (but it takes longer to cook and needs overnight soaking).

Farro
Similar to barley, it is said to have sustained the Roman legions. Rich in fibre, magnesium and vitamins A, E and B, its wholewheat kernels are sweet and chewy, with a higher carb content than quinoa but with more calcium.

Kamut
An ancient relative of durum wheat that’s easily digested and often sold as a flour. The wholegrain can be served in place of rice, and contains high levels of naturally occurring healthy fats.

Spelt
An unprocessed form of wheat but higher in protein and B vitamins, the high-fibre flour is great for general baking.

Buckwheat
Wheat and gluten-free, with all the essential amino acids, high in protein and magnesium. The flour makes great pancakes and it helps lower blood sugar so might be helpful for diabetics.

Teff
The smallest gluten-free grain, high in calcium and vitamin C and ideal if used as a flour. Pop it in a pan and then boil it to a porridge-like consistency. Great with vegetables and stock to make a hearty stew.

Millet
A good alternative to cous-cous, this tiny grass seed cooks in 15 minutes, and has a sweet nutty flavour. Gluten-free and high in protein, it is one of the most digestible and non-allergenic grains. Makes a great side dish or porridge.

Freekeh
A young green wheat that tastes smoky and is great used as a stuffing for poultry or side dishes. Takes about 15 minutes to cook, much the same as rice.

— The Daily Telegraph

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