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Cutting through the carbohydrate controversy

You can have your carbs and eat them too. Just be more mindful about them, says a fitness coach.

Carbohydrates are a vital fuel source that your body requires
Carbohydrates are a vital fuel source that your body requires (Pexels)

If you're looking to rock the boat, I suggest becoming a nutrition coach and eating carbohydrates at a dinner party. You'll notice a general shift of unease as dinner guests watch you eat your biryani. Soon, a brave soul will ask, "I find it interesting you're eating carbs. Don't they cause gain weight?" Silence descends across the table as eager guests lean in to hear what you have to say. You sigh. You want to eat your food in peace, but people are desperate for an answer, judging by the looks around the table. 

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Let me step in and help you answer this one. I have found that carbohydrates are a polarising topic like politics and religion. Throughout my coaching practice, I have found that people can adamantly fall into one of three camps: carbohydrates are the devil, carbohydrates are my only friends, and please let me eat my carbohydrates in peace. Like any nutrition advice I give, I have to find a middle ground to accommodate everyone's preferences - as there is no single correct answer for everyone. 

Carbohydrates are a vital fuel source that your body requires, and I want people to stop shaming themselves for eating them. However, I also know that most people benefit by consuming fewer carbohydrates and making healthier carbohydrates choices. Therefore, in this article, I want to discuss where this carbohydrate controversy has come from, where carbohydrates get their bad reputation, and what it means to be more "carb-conscious." 

Let's start with where the carbohydrate controversy comes from. In the early late 1990s, when the internet was still in its infancy, and Google was practically an embryo, a diet made waves that promised dramatic weight loss: the Atkins diet. According to Science Direct, the Atkins diet has a severely low carbohydrate intake to encourage weight loss. The diet itself consisted of four phases. Phases one and two were the most stringent while, by stage four, the dieter could increase their carbohydrate intake to approximately 100g a day, which in relative terms, is still low. 

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Soon enough, the Ketogenic diet sprung into action. According to Epilepsia, the Ketogenic diet's original purpose was to minimize childhood seizures by focussing on high-fat, low carbohydrate consumption. The side effect of eating this way was that your body, starved of carbohydrates, would utilize a fuel source it could make on its own: ketones. People found that this way of eating helped them lose weight, and therefore it became their gospel. 

From these two examples, we have evidence that low-carbohydrate diets have helped people lose weight. However, was it specifically the carbohydrates that caused the weight gain in the first place? And, is cutting carbohydrates the only way to lose weight?

Not quite. There are plenty of reasons why your weight can jump overnight, and carbohydrates are only one piece of the proverbial pie. First of all, when people consume carbohydrates, it's an easy form of food to overeat - as you'll know from eating pizza, pasta, and desserts. Now sitting in your gastrointestinal tract, that food counts as weight on the scale. Secondly, many carbohydrate dishes contain sodium, and sodium can increase your water weight. And yes, when you eat 1g of carbohydrates, it's stored with 3g of water in your body. That's quite a bit of water, and this water weight will show up on the scale. 

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The reverse can happen when someone cuts carbohydrates. Without the need for water to help store carbohydrates in their digested form, inevitably, within a period of approximately a few days to a week, their weight drops (the water is flushed out). Most people view this weight loss as an immediate success and correlate it directly to eating carbohydrates alone. This is where carbohydrates get a bad reputation. If the weight comes on and off quickly, it's likely fluid changes in your body, not fat loss. Fat loss is something that takes much longer to achieve. 

So can carbohydrates cause long-term weight gain? Yes, they may contribute to it by adding to your overall calorie intake each day: When you eat more calories than you need, your body will store the extra fuel as fat. Having said that, calories from overeating fat and protein can also do this. 

Let's assume that your ultimate goal is to lose fat, not just the water weight. Should you cut your carbohydrates to achieve that?  For starters, not all diets work for everyone. However, some diets do work for select people. For example, low carbohydrate diets can make some people feel great and see long-term results, but not everyone. Also, carbohydrate intake is also individual. For example, active people should consume more carbohydrates to fuel their exercise, and sedentary people should consume less, as their bodies require less fuel to move. 

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Now that we aren't viewing cutting carbohydrates as "all or nothing," let's find the middle of the spectrum, a place I call being more "carbohydrate-conscious". This means that to lose weight, you're considering the quality and portion size of your carbohydrate consumption to make better choices. Also, there are better sources of carbohydrates than others. All carbohydrates break down into glucose in our bodies, but the rate they break down is important. 

As Precision Nutrition states, carbohydrate sources such as cookies, cakes, crackers, white bread, and pasta come from highly refined carbohydrate sources, so they digest quickly. They also don't have as many nutrients as unprocessed sources of carbohydrates, such as whole grains, sprouted grains, quinoa, fruits, and vegetables. So choose these unprocessed varieties over the processed ones. 

And finally, portion size matters. If you're judging by the size of your hand, men can start with the equivalent of two cupped handfuls at each meal, and women can begin with one.

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