Carbohydrates – Good, bad or ugly?

Almost daily, the press are writing about a new celebrity diet trend. Low carb and carb free diets such as the Atkins, have made headlines across the world. But what is the real truth behind carbohydrates?


Zoe Harcombe is a fellow nutritionist and author of Stop Counting Calories & Start Losing Weight ( has spent most of her career unveiling the mysteries.

Protein is in every food (lettuce, bread, fruit, meat, etc), so we can simplify everything we eat into two categories: fat/protein and carb/protein. The reason that these are so interesting is that carb/protein is the only category that raises our blood glucose level and therefore requires insulin to be released from the pancreas to return our blood sugar level to normal. We can eat fat/protein until the cows come home (excuse the pun) and the insulin mechanism stays dormant. As insulin is called the fattening hormone for good reason, we want to minimise the number of times a day that we call for it to be released and we want to eat the carbs that it will recognise, so that it releases the right amount.

Digestion is also another reason why carbs are more fattening than fat (gram for gram). Carbs start being digested as soon as we start chewing (with the salivary enzymes) whereas any fat doesn’t get digested until it reaches the colon. Jequier has shown that 100 calories of pure carbohydrate may give 92-94 calories available to the body as energy and that 100 calories of fat/protein may give 70-75 calories available to the body as energy.’

Less refined

There definitely are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ carbs,’ explains Zoe. ‘Good carbs are those found in the form that nature intended us to eat them – baked potatoes come from the ground – chips don’t; oranges grow on trees – cartons of orange juice don’t; brown rice is the form in which the grain is harvested – white rice is refined.

There are even worse carbs than white rice and chips – in the UK we eat, on average, 1.6lbs of sugar per person per week (World Health Organisation stats). That’s 400 empty calories (sugar has no vitamins and minerals) per average person per day. The pancreas stands virtually no chance of knowing how much insulin to release if we eat a confectionary bar, or several biscuits. Invariably it releases too much insulin (due to the unnatural sweetness it detects) and then our blood sugar drops lower than it was before we ate the processed stuff and this is when we want more sweet things to raise our blood sugar again. Processed carbs can keep us in a cycle of sugar highs and lows and blood sugar induced cravings all day long.

There are two more very common conditions impacted by carbs: Candida and Food Intolerance. Candida is a yeast that lives in all of us and it can most easily get out of control when it is fed a high carb diet. Candida loves sugar and all the processed food we eat in unprecedented quantities nowadays. Candida even loves good carbs and fruit sugar, so anyone with classics signs of Candida (thrush, dandruff, cravings for bread and yeasty foods) should limit even their good carb intake.

Food Intolerance is becoming increasingly common in the ‘developed’ world, as our diet moves further away from food in the form that nature intended us to eat it. The most common intolerances in the UK are to sugar and wheat and nutritionists do observe a whole host of problems clearing up when they remove these carbs from someone’s diet. There are so many good alternatives to wheat that this is not a hardship: rice pasta, corn pasta, quinoa, baked potatoes, porridge oats, brown rice cereal and then more use of the bean and pulse family (chick peas, lentils, kidney beans etc) can add much variety. In all the years I have worked with overweight people, I have yet to find someone whose health and weight has not improved significantly by avoiding wheat.

The ultimate irony is that trying to eat fewer calories automatically drives people down the route of eating more carbs. Because fat has nine calories per gram and carbs have four, dieters choose carbs every time, regardless of whether they are good or bad carbohydrates.  Anyone trying to lose weight should pay more attention to carbs than calories and only eat good carbs and not, even then, at every meal.’

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