What’s the deal with Carbohydrates?

Quite often when I hear a person say that they are going to try and lose weight or “the diet starts tomorrow” the first thing they say they’re going to do is “cut out the bread”.

But bread is not the enemy!*

*If you’re eating the recommended portion size.

Portion size is something that a lot of us struggle with. This is mainly because we’ve never really been told what an actual portion size should look like. I certainly got a shock when I found out! The massive portions of rice, potato and pasta or huge bread rolls that we get in restaurants or takeaways has probably distorted our idea of what we should be serving ourselves at home.

Before I explain what portion sizes should look like, I feel it would be helpful to give a quick explanation of what carbohydrates are and why we need them. Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. We need energy to keep our body running, similar to how a car needs petrol. But, like a car, we can only store a certain amount of energy or petrol at a time. Once the tank is full, petrol starts to leak out. Once our carbohydrate storage centres (muscle and liver) are full, any extra carbohydrate is converted to fat and stored in our fat tissue (our bodies are very resourceful and know that energy is a valuable resource. It doesn’t want to just dump it so it stores it where we have the most storage space – our fat tissue). However, like a car uses up petrol pretty fast, we used up our carbohydrate reserves (scientifically called glycogen) pretty fast which is why it is recommended we have a portion of carbohydrates at each meal.

So basically, you need enough energy from carbohydrates to keep your body running but you don’t want too much. But I like carbohydrates you say? I want to eat more you say? Well, thankfully there is a way you can do this…

Exercise!! Yes, just like a car uses up petrol and has to be refilled after a journey, your muscles use up carbohydrate when you exercise meaning that in order to refill them you need to eat more carbohydrates! If you aren’t very active then you’re carbohydrate needs are lower. If you eat more than you need then you will put on weight.

So, now that we, hopefully, know why we need carbohydrates, the next question is what are carbohydrates?

Well, basically they are foods that once eaten and digested are broken down into sugars (don’t panic, sugar isn’t evil either, we need it for energy).

The most common examples include bread, potato, rice, pasta, oats, cereals, grains, beans, peas and lentils. These are often called complex carbohydrates. Other foods that contain carbohydrate are fruits and dairy products. The other group of foods that contain carbohydrates are foods like sugary drinks, cakes, biscuits, bars, scones, buns, sweets etc. These are the only carbohydrate foods that you should avoid or limit.

“But I heard low-carbohydrate diets are good for weight loss?”. Technically this is true. If you don’t eat carbohydrates then your body will break down your fat stores for energy. However, long term this can have unwanted side effects. The main reason is because carbohydrates are our main source of fibre. Fibre is needed to keep things running smoothly through our digestive tract. If you don’t eat enough fibre you’re likely to become constipated and long-term it can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.

How much carbohydrates do you need? Here I’m specifically talking about cereals, bread, potato, pasta rice and other grains. Even though fruits, dairy products and plant proteins contain carbohydrates, they have their own recommended intakes which I’ll cover in a later blog post.

Using the guide above, you can work out how many servings of carbohydrates you need per day. An inactive person would be someone with an office job who does little to no exercise. Even someone with a job that requires them to be on their feet for the most of the day can still be considered inactive as standing and walking, unless it’s at a brisk pace, does not raise your heart-rate enough to give you benefits (I know this will be disappointing to hear for anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet!).

The minimum amount of exercise adults need to do to maintain a healthy weight is 30 minutes on 5 days of the week. This exercise can be as basic as a brisk walk. If you’re just starting out then it can even be split up into shorter bouts of 10 minutes three times a day (e.g. a longer walk to work, lunchtime lap of the office building and brisk walk back to the car (maybe with a bit of a detour). You just want to get your heart-rate up a bit and your breathing to become slightly heavier.

An active person would be someone who has a labour intensive job (e.g. construction worker or farmer) or someone who does exercise most days, e.g. a long brisk walk, jog, gym session or dance class.

To give an example, I’ll use an adult female in her 20’s who isn’t active and is looking to lose weight. She should be having 3-4 servings of carbohydrates per day. Below is what a typical day would look like for her if she was having 3 portions of carbohydrates (just showing carbohydrate foods).

As an example, for breakfast she could either have 2 slices of thin wholemeal toast (different breads have different amounts of carbohydrate so go for the thinner slice pans), 1/3 cup of raw oats made into porridge or 1 cup of flaked cereal. For lunch she could have a wholemeal bread sandwich, a pasta salad made with 1 cup of cooked pasta or a pitta pocket sandwich. For dinner she could have 2 medium sized potatoes, 4 baby potatoes, 1 cup cooked brown rice or 1 cup cooked cous cous.

When measuring out cups you can use a 200ml plastic cup as a guide. Until you get to know your portion sizes it is really important to measure out your portions, especially for foods like cereal, rice and pasta. If you free-pour your cereal, chances are you could be pouring yourself 2 portions without knowing it. So if you accidentally give yourself a double portion of cereal for breakfast and a double portion rice for dinner as well as having a sandwich for lunch then you have eaten 5 servings of carbohydrates that day – this is what an active adult female or male needs so would be too much for my example of an inactive female looking to lose weight.

While the example above gives a guide for 3 portions of carbohydrates per day, if you are more active or a male then you will need more. You can reach your target by either having a double portion of carbohydrates at mealtimes (e.g. 2/3 cup of oats, 2 cups of cereal, 2 cups of rice or 4 medium potatoes). Or you could add in extra snacks – e.g.  two slices of toast mid-morning or a sandwich in the afternoon – this would be a good idea if you were going to the gym after work and won’t be eating until late.

While the above carbohydrate portion sizes are a good basic guide, I wasn’t able to include portion sizes for all carbohydrates in this post as I didn’t want to overload it with information (but if you have any questions I can definitely write another post). I went with the most common choices but below is a good info-graphic from SafeFood which compares the carbohydrates in different types of bread to 2 slices of wholemeal bread. Not all breads are equal, 1 demi baguette is the same as 4 slices of wholemeal bread so just keep things like this in mind when making food choices. This would be a good option for an active person looking to increase their carbohydrate intake.

Hopefully at this stage I’ve explained what carbohydrates are, why we need them and how to work out what portion size you need. My advice for anyone who is overweight and trying to lose weight would be to work out how many portions of carbohydrates you need each day and then to start measuring out correct portion sizes. Try go for wholemeal, wholegrain or brown options where possible as these are more nutritious and will keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Try to avoid processed carbohydrates and things like takeaway pizzas, extra large portions of takeaway rice and chips, big boxes of cinema popcorn, bags of crisps, pastries, scones, cakes and biscuits – these are all contain large amounts of carbohydrates and calories and aren’t very nutritious or necessary for a healthy diet. They’re OK as on odd treat if you want them but to put it into context, a portion of chips from a chipper contains the same amount of carbohydrates as 9.5 slices of wholemeal bread…yeah, that one’s a bit of an eye opener!

Weight loss and weight maintenance is all about making small but effective changes which soon become habit. Getting into the habit of weighing out correct portion sizes is one of the things people who are a healthy weight tend to have in common. If you have any questions or would like me to cover other topics in future blog posts then leave me a comment below or get in touch with me on any of my social media accounts!

Thanks for reading,

Aisling