I’ve been in the health and fitness industry for 20 years now. In that time I’ve seen diet crazes come and go, fitness crazes come and go, and all the while as a whole we continue to get fatter and fatter. More of us have type 2 diabetes and even our children are being increasingly diagnosed. When I was first a dietitian this was called maturity onset diabetes. The name had to be changed, as that is no longer true.
What concerns me most of all is that the clear messages of what we need to do to turn the tide are constantly being muddled by extremist, singular or downright incorrect points of view. Everyone has an opinion on nutrition, exercise and frequently both. Everyone is free to write about it and speak on it, and they do, usually passionately and with enough scientific hypotheses to make it sound believable.
There are indeed many areas of nutrition and health that we still don’t understand. This means that the information from nutritionists has also changed over the years. We are often lambasted for this. Yet the same is true of medicine and pretty much every other science. Yet instead of moving with the times and taking on board the new evidence and information as it comes about, some come to the conclusion that it’s all a wrought and advice is biased by the influence of the bigger industries of agriculture and food companies. While this is certainly true for the advertising of some products – and if you read Food Politics by Marion Nestle you gain some insight into this – it does not mean that nutrition science does not have its feet firmly on evidence-based ground.
A current phase that is really worrying me is the widespread fear of carbs. There is even a term been coined to describe it “carbophobia”. There is indeed a solid bank of evidence to show that higher protein, lower carb diets can be better for weight and fat loss than low fat high carbohydrate diets… but that doesn’t mean low carb is the best option. It just means that those old fashioned low fat diets were not the best approach.
The thing is the mistakes we made with the low fat movement, we are making again with the low carb movement. With the former the food industry responded to the recommendations to reduce fat by coming up with a whole host of low fat or fat free products. Great! We could have our cake and eat it… provided it came with no fat. The result? We ended up eating an ever-increasing number of refined carbohydrate-rich foods and we continued to get fatter. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see what went wrong. We increased the insulin demand of the diet, we made people hungrier and psychologically the fat free label gave us a license to eat more.
So we come to today. The message of “carbs are fattening” has reached most of us. We are trying to cut back on bread, potatoes and pasta. The food industries are responding by producing a whole host of low carb, high protein foods and we are buying them in droves. A packet of low carb, high protein chocolate style balls landed on my desk the other day. They are clearly marketed to women trying to lose weight. A single packet contains almost 1000kJ. This is designed as a snack food. Yet God forbid you eat a slice of bread (370kJ) or a cup of pasta (860kJ). Why can’t we see that is repeating all the same mistakes of the past? Why should processed protein be any better for us than processed fats or carbohydrates? When will we realise that it is highly processed food that is the problem, not any one macronutrient?
Carbohydrate is macronutrient. It is not a food group. Most foods contain varying quantities of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Grain foods for example are not carbs, they are certainly carbohydrate-rich but they all provide reasonably high levels of protein and smaller amounts of fat. Foods made from grains cannot be lumped together in one food group. A processed refined sugar-sweetened cupcake is nutritionally completely different to a slice of wholegrain bread. A bowl of processed breakfast cereal made from flour is completely different to a bowl of porridge made from whole grains.
My point is we need to stop talking about “carbs” and instead talk about foods. Yes eating a good source of protein with each meal will help to satisfy you, snack less between meals and ultimately control your weight. But that doesn’t mean you need to be scared of eating some carbohydrate-rich foods. If you choose the best ones – principally wholegrains and legumes – they provide you with slow release carbohydrates to keep blood sugar, energy levels and your mood steady, fibre to promote optimal gut health as well as helping to fill you up, and numerous micronutrients and phytochemicals essential for a healthy body. You’ll also be able to feed yourself and your family for less, as these foods are on the whole much cheaper than animal foods. And finally from an ethical and environmental perspective we cannot feed the world a low carb, high protein diet. So enjoy your carb-rich foods – just be particular about which ones you choose. Your body and your brain will thank you for it.