Low-carb or no-carb – will either of them lead to a healthier you? By Helen Wallace
Over the past couple of years, carbohydrates have garnered a bad reputation. Different diet plans, such as the most recent fad, Banting, have led us to believe that we should eliminate them from our lives completely, as they won’t only make us gain weight and prevent us from losing it, but will also have a negative impact on our health in the long term. But are they really all that bad? And is carb-free eating really a healthier option?
Ancient man thrived on a modest diet of meat and plants, with wheat-based products being added to our plates at a later stage. One of the big arguments against carbohydrates is that the human body didn’t evolve to properly process the refined carbs prevalent in a lot of our food today, such as bread, pasta or confectionery, and this, in conjunction with the amount of sugar we consume, has led to an obesity pandemic and the rise of diabetes. This has led to a global panic, and healthcare professionals are trying to get to the root of the problem and help people make necessary dietary changes.
Everything in moderation
Carbohydrates have always made up part of the food pyramid, but now we are being told by some dietitians and nutritionists that we should omit them from our meals altogether, which is not only difficult, but also unbalanced. ‘Completely eliminating a major food group is going to have its consequences on the body in the long run,’ says Lynne Maccallum, a nutritional therapist. ‘The nutrients found in complex carbs are needed by the body for a number of cellular functions.’
To carb or not to carb
One of the biggest crazes to hit SA is the LCHF (low-carb, high-fat) diet, or Banting, popularised by Professor Tim Noakes. The diet is rooted in the belief that the key to losing weight as well as preventing the onset of type-2 diabetes is that we consume few carbohydrates and increase our consumption of fat and protein, with the latter giving us the energy we’ll need to go about our day. While many banters have claimed to have had amazing results, both on their waistlines and in their general health, sceptics say that this lifestyle could have serious repercussions, such as high cholesterol, a low mood, and a decrease in bone density – and it can place strain on our kidneys. ‘When the emphasis is on high fat and high protein intake, there is a shortfall of vegetables and fruits that provide healthy carbs and essential phytonutrients,’ says Lynne. But even banting allows for a few carbohydrates – completely eliminating them from your diet would mean that the adverse effects of the low-carb lifestyle would be even more acute.
So, for those who are able to resist carbs altogether, what does this mean for their well-being? This type of diet would be considered extreme and even unsustainable. ‘Most people generally tend to feel very good, and at first lose weight, when eating carb-free, though this is often merely a consequence of them giving up on refined carbs. Even though refined carbs are not good for us, this doesn’t mean that complex carbs such as whole grains and starchy vegetables should also be eliminated,’ explains Lynne.
What happens if you don’t consume the necessary 130g of carbohydrates per day? Fatigue is a common side effect, as well as ketosis, which is when your body breaks down stored fat as fuel. While occasional ketosis is not necessarily bad, it can cause nausea and headaches, as well as the inability to concentrate, especially if prolonged. More serious problems such as thyroid imbalances and colorectal cancers can also arise as a result of totally avoiding carbs.
Just like there are good and bad fats, so it is with carbs, and some of these foods also contain a host of other vitamins that our bodies need to stay both fit and healthy. Examples of these include legumes, sweet potatoes and wholegrains, which make up part of a nutritious diet and won’t cause your weight or your blood sugar to soar.
Happy and healthy
As with everything in life, balance and moderation are the keys to longevity. ‘A far wiser approach to eating is to assess the quality of the carb that you’re consuming in relation to the Glycemic Load Index,’ says Lynne. ‘This score tells you the percentage of carbs found in a food item and the quality of carbs that they provide. Eating low-GL carbs keeps blood sugar levels stable by preventing high blood sugar and insulin spikes.’
It is said that a balanced diet is the best medicine, so instead of jumping on a fad-diet bandwagon or taking extreme dietary measures and eliminating entire food groups, eat in such a way that you feel nourished, but not overfed. As they say, a healthy outside starts from the inside.