The Truth About Carbohydrates

Can you eat them without getting fat? If so, when and how? We demystify the most derided food group of the moment

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IMAGE: Theo's Simple Italian

Modern diets from the Paleo to the Dukan have sought to cast carbohydrates as the enemy, leaving men everywhere terrified a bowl of pasta will sit in their stomachs all night and make them fat. 

But how many of us really understand the difference between types of carbs, or the ways they can actually help our bodies? It might be trendy to hate on carbs, but that don't make it right.

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Instead of enlisting the help of a personal trainer or diet guru pushing their latest no bread regime, we spoke to qualified nutritionist Sara Jubb to find out the truth.

Do carbs make you gain weight?

In a nutshell: complex carbohydrates like white bread, pasta and biscuits are hard for our body to digest and contain no fiber or nutrients. Unless you exercise very frequently they should be avoided and saved for treating yourself, or - sorry about this - you will gain weight.

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"Some people thrive on high carb diets" Sara explains, "Especially young people and those engaged in a lot of physical activity. But many people do not. Modern diets full of processed foods are especially high in refined carbs. So if you are not an elite athlete and you want to manage your weight I advise low carbohydrate diets, but never no carbohydrate diets as some types are crucial."

When should I eat them?

Many personal trainers recommend starting the day by eating "like a king", but this doesn't mean the rich carbohydrates we normally reach for when tired and hungry.

"Most people start the day with a really high carb breakfast whether this is toast, cereal or even a juice or smoothie" Sara explains, "I believe in many people this contributes to low energy and a mid-afternoon slump. I try to advice people not to eat carbs for breakfast if they can, replacing carbs with a high protein breakfast that also contains something green (think poached eggs and avocado, spinach omelette, etc.) The protein will not cause a sugar rush and therefore your energy levels won't fluctuate later in the day."

Is the 'no carbs in the evening' rule correct?

A lot of people warn you against eating carbohydrates in the evening and particular diets revolve around not eating them after 4 or 5pm at all. Sara disagrees, arguing that if we eat the right type of carbs in the evening you won't gain weight.

Whilst it is true that eating refined carbohydrates before bed will make you feel bloated as your body struggles to break them down, Sara says: "An evening meal that combines protein and a small amount of good carbs - think brown rice, sweet potatoes, vegetables - eaten at least 3 hours before bedtime is a great dinner."

Additionally, the sleep hormone melatonin is made from the breakdown of the amino acids in carbohydrates, which is why sleep often suffers if you cut out carbohydrates from your diet too severely.

Which carbs are good and which should I avoid?

Sara says: "Carbs are found in all fruit and vegetables," Sarah points out "and come packaged with loads of nutritional goodies – vitamins, minerals, fibres that are good for you. Eat lots of different kinds of fruit and vegetables. Root vegetables like beetroot, sweet potato and celeriac have the highest carb content but are still good for you."

What do you think?

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