Carbohydrates have for some time been the black sheep of the nutrition family - a dirty and blasphemous word that strikes fear and panic within the weight-loss world.
Largely, the demise of our deliciously comforting foes began with the surge in popularity of low-carb diets such as Atkins, Dukan and South Beach in the early 00s, that lead many to see them as the one true obstacle to weight-loss. As a result, the health and fitness world has since become overrun with protein rich regimes that preach the dangers of a life lived with rice, potatoes and bread.
However, in more recent times it seems carbs have begun to make a comeback. Campaigns such as ‘strong not skinny’ that shy away from low-calorie lifestyles and call on strength-training and ‘good’ carbohydrates have been gathering momentum and dominating social media feeds. In particular, personal trainer Kayla Itsines is taking the health and fitness world by storm with her fitness regime and wholesome, balanced diet that incorporates all food groups to ensure a muscular, lean body.
Also championing the importance of carbohydrates is online nutrition coach and creator of the Shift, Shape & Sustain Plan, Joe Wicks who is making a big name for himself and transforming bodies with his personal training plan on instagram as @thebodycoach. We got in touch with him to help us set the record straight on why carbs are not the enemy and how to healthily integrate them into our everyday lives.
“Don’t fear carbs and don't believe the myth that eating carbs after 6pm will make you fat,” says Joe. Essentially, we need carbohydrates because they are the body’s main source of fuel and are key for maximum energy, stamina, concentration and recovery performance - as a result, they’re especially important for people who work out regularly. “They’re also an important macronutrient,” says Joe. “Macronutrients consist of fats, proteins and carbohydrates and they all have an important function and form part of a balanced diet. Structuring these correctly, in my opinion, is the key to getting lean.”
So why exactly do carbs have such a bad rep? This is because when you eat them, your blood sugar level rises and triggers a release of insulin, which then attempts to reduce your blood sugar level by storing it. Insulin does this by filling up certain storage areas in your body with these carbs. One of the main storage sites is muscle cells. The problem arises because when your muscles become full of carbohydrates, they signal to the body to let it know they are full and can't store anymore. Once this happens, any excess carbohydrates will begin to store in other locations around your body and can essentially convert into fat (adipose tissue) if not worked off in exercise.
However, this is not the case if an active fitness regime is in place.“On the days that you workout, glycogen levels (stored carbohydrates) are drained down from the intense training and need to be topped up with good quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates, ready for the next session. Successfully doing this promotes an anabolic effect that enhances muscle growth, not fat gain. So, providing you’re eating in line with your calorie requirements and are using stored carbohydrates as energy for training, then all you are doing is re-filling them – not adding to your waistline”, says Joe.
In a nutshell, carbohydrates are needed for your body, but just in moderate amounts.“Eating too many of them and in addition to your body's needs is what causes you to store fat,” says Joe. “As long as you keep yourself in the correct calorie deficit, and consume less carbs on rest days where you don't need the extra fuel, you’ll lose weight – but not by cutting an important macronutrient like carbohydrates.”
Don’t get too excited though, this doesn’t mean you can go feast on bags of McDonalds fries - carbohydrates are a broad category, and as is the case with most food groups, there are good and bad forms. Opt for low GI , high fibre carbohydrates such as wholemeal grains like brown pasta and rice, starchy vegetables, porridge oats and sweet potato. Look to avoid processed, refined carbohydrates that strip away all the beneficial fibre, such as white bread or pasta, biscuits, cakes and chocolate.