10 ways to be clever about carbs
Low-carb or even no-carb diets are everywhere, and there’s no denying they can help you drop weight quickly. But is it sustainable – or actually healthy for you and your family?
When Gwyneth Paltrow declared that she avoids feeding her children pasta, bread or rice, the nation choked on its spag bol in collective horror. If you’ve got kids, chances are these are the foods you go to most often at mealtimes to fill them up and give them energy. And if you haven’t, they’re still probably your go-to foods.
So, was Gwyneth irresponsible to say what she did? It certainly needs qualifying, says Dr Andrew Thillainayagam, a gastroenterologist at the London Clinic. ‘Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. And many also provide vitamins, phytochemicals and enzymes, so it’s a bad idea to cut them out completely.’
1. Remember: all carbs are not created equal
It all comes down to what type of carb you’re talking about. ‘All carbohydrates are basically broken down into sugar in the body,’ says Zoe Harcombe, author of The Obesity Epidemic (Columbus Publishing, £20). ‘The difference is in what else they bring to the table. For refined carbs like sugar, cakes, biscuits, crisps, pastries and so on, the answer is very little. These are just empty calories that are inevitably stored as fat when not burned off through exercise.’Read more: The eating plan to beat all your junk food cravings
2. Keep things complex
The other form of carbohydrates – complex ones such as wholegrains, wholemeal bread and pasta, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses – aren’t quite so dispensable. ‘As well as providing energy, vitamins and minerals, they’re high in fibre,’ says Dr Thillainayagam, ‘so without them you’d probably become very constipated.’
Christina Merryfield, lead dietician at the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London, adds: ‘Wholegrain foods are also thought to reduce your risk of heart disease and bowel cancer, so they’re a crucial part of any healthy, well-balanced diet.’
3. Cut carbs to burn fat in the early days…
Carbs may be crucial to a healthy diet, but cutting them for a bit certainly shifts the pounds. ‘Avoiding carbohydrates for a few days can help kick-start weight loss as it forces the body to burn fat for energy,’ says Dr Thillainayagam.
4. …but definitely don’t do it long-term
‘It isn’t sustainable in the long-term,’ says Dr Thillainayagam. Out of 322 dieters followed by Harvard University, only 78% of those on low-carb plans stuck with their diets, while nearly 90% of those on a high-carb diet were still going strong after two years. Pass the brown rice.
5. They’re essential if you’re pregnant or breast-feeding
They’re vital for healthy milk and bones. ‘Pregnant and breast-feeding women should never attempt to reduce their carbohydrate intake,’ says Dr Thillainayagam. ‘Particularly wholegrains, which are a valuable source of B vitamins, and dairy products, which are rich in bone- strengthening calcium but have varying amounts of lactose, or milk sugar.’
6. Be carb-savvy if you’re sporty
The same goes for sporty types. ‘What you eat before, after – and during – exercise can affect performance,’ says Merryfield. ‘Starchy foods like pasta, bread and rice can be a useful way to load up on energy before a race, for example. Choose wholegrain options, as well as beans and pulses to ensure you’re getting the energy, fibre and nutrients you need to get the most from your training.’
7. Get your veg right
Think twice about the ‘five-a-day’ message, as some veg contains more unnecessary carbs than others. Harcombe says, ‘Green, leafy vegetables are pretty good nutritionally,’ she says, ‘as they’re full of vitamins and minerals such as carotene, vitamin C, potassium and iron. But starchy veg such as parsnips don’t offer anything you can’t get from meat, fish and eggs, which are far more nutrient-rich.’
8. Beware of fruit
Carbs, in the form of fruit, are the real sticking point for Harcombe. ‘Fruit is not the nutrient-rich food many dieticians would have us believe,’ she says. ‘It’s essentially sugar with some vitamin C.’
No argument from Dr Thillainayagam here. ‘Fruit is very high in fructose [fruit sugar], so it’s better if most of your five-a-day comes from vegetables,’ he says. ‘I’d avoid fruit juice and smoothies altogether, as they’re basically concentrated fructose with less fibre to slow absorption.’
9. Don’t forget carbs can be addictive
We may joke about being addicted to pasta, but turns out it’s true – a New Zealand study found that foods made largely from refined sugar and flour light up the same pleasure centres in the brain as tobacco. It’s unsurprising that one in four Britons is now clinically obese.Read more: How to find your healthy, happy weight
10. Make healthy carbs family-friendly
Try substituting white pasta with wholewheat – introduce it half and half. Most kids love houmous, which is a good source of healthy carbs from the chickpeas. Serve it with wholewheat pitta or raw veggies. Also swap white potatoes in mash for sweet ones – if it’s shepherd’s pie, they won’t notice the difference.
The key is to avoid being overly restrictive. ‘Labelling foods as “bad” or off-limits often makes them more appealing to children and can also create food guilt issues,’ says child psychologist Claire Halsey. ‘It’s better to teach little ones to enjoy a range of foods, so they grow up making naturally healthy choices.’