Carbohydrates - explained by a dietitian!

Poor old carbs have received such a bad wrap in recent years, correlating with the rise of unqualified influencers promoting unsustainable diets that cut out whole food groups. This has unfortunately generated a fear around carbohydrates and has resulted in many people removing this major food group from their diets. The main goal for many ‘low-carb’ goers is ‘weight loss’, however we know from scientific evidence that this dietary pattern causes anything but a reduction on the scales. 

As a Dietitian, I will NEVER remove carbohydrates from my diet, but before we get into that let's set the scene by firstly explaining what a carbohydrate is, where it is found and its role within the body.

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, alongside protein and fat. Macronutrients provide us with energy and form the basis of our diet. According to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), carbohydrates should make up 45-60% of our total energy intake, protein 15-25% and fat 10-15%. Do take these recommendations with a grain of salt because everyone is so different and requirements will vary.

When we eat a carbohydrate, they are broken down into a sugar molecule called glucose. Glucose is our brain and bodies preferred energy source (yes, our brain runs off carbs, how cool!). So, if you’ve ever tried reducing your carbohydrate intake and felt fatigued, tired, lacked concentration and motivation, that’s why. 

Carbohydrates are found in majority of the foods we eat. Wholefood sources include grains, cereals, fruit, starchy vegetables, lentils, legumes and dairy products. Lollies, chocolate, soft-drinks and common takeaway foods are also carbohydrate sources; which is where the negative connotations generally come from. So as you can see, not all carbohydrates are equal and some varieties are favoured in a healthy lifestyle. 

There is no doubt that we want to cut back our intake of refined carbohydrates to reduce our risk of disease and to improve overall health. When you hear that someone has lost weight after reducing ‘carbs', it is likely due to a reduction of highly refined, energy-dense foods, it's the ‘calories’ rather than the ‘carbohydrate’ itself. On the other hand, removing the nourishing wholefood versions is completely unnecessary, here’s why:

  1. Carbohydrates are the major source of Fibre in our diet 

Australians continually fail to consume the recommended amount of fibre per day, increasing our risk of bowel associated diseases. Eating enough fibre helps to keep our digestive systems regular and has been proven to increase the diversity in the bacteria found in our gut. According to research, eating 30 different fibrous plant foods has been linked to changes in our gut microbiome and more positive health outcomes. Because fibre passes through our digestive tract completely undigested, it takes quite sometime to do so, which helps to balance our blood sugar levels and keeps us feeling fuller for longer. At KOJA, we make a conscious effort to fill our Natural Peanut Butter Bars with nutritious carbohydrate sources that add a hit of fibre! Think nut butters, crushed nuts and buckwheat kernels. Yum! 

  1. Carbohydrates contain a range of essential vitamins and minerals 

Ditching carbs might mean that you miss out on key vitamins, minerals and phytocompounds that are essential for optimal health and wellbeing. Let’s have a look at fruit as an example. These naturally sweet delights contain antioxidants that help to fight off free radical damage and pathogens within the body. They also contain immune-supporting nutrients such as vitamin A, C, E and Zinc.

Unfortunately, less than 50% of Australian adults consume the recommended amount of fruit per day. The goal is to eat 2 pieces per day so try adding an extra serve into your breakfast or carry a piece with you for a quick snack. Research has even proven that individuals who consume adequate amounts of fruit reduce their risk of certain disease and are more likely to be within a healthy weight range. 

Diet culture and the rise in plant-based lifestyles has also made many of us fear our friends in the dairy department. While there are some dairy based products that are more nutritious than others, the main benefit of milk, yoghurt, cheese and those alike come from the calcium and B12. Calcium keeps our bones nice and strong but also plays a vital role in the functioning of our heart and muscles. B12 helps to convert the food we eat into energy. 

Lentils and legumes are not only an excellent source of fibre and prebiotic starch (this helps keep our tummies nice and healthy), they are also a wonderful source of plant-based protein and iron. They tick all of our boxes here at KOJA. 

At the end of the day, if you are cutting out certain foods or food groups, you may be risk of nutritional deficiencies. 

  1. Cutting out food groups is unsustainable. 

Falling off the bandwagon might sound all too familiar, but chances are the dietary changes you undertook in the first place weren’t manageable or sustainable. Too often we hear people saying they can’t stick to diets or they have failed the diet, but what we know is diets actually fail us, with 95% of them being unattainable. When you make an extreme dietary change, i.e. cutting out carbohydrates, your body will begin to crave these foods because it knows what it’s missing, how smart! Rather than believing you lacked willpower and motivation, accept the fact that our bodies need fuel from carbohydrates to perform optimally. 

  1. Carbohydrates are delicious! 

Now we know that carbohydrates are an essential part of our diet for so many reasons, they also taste delicious which is just as important. Food is so much more than just fuel; it’s also about enjoyment, fulfilment, culture, traditions and preferences. Try to choose nutrient-dense wholefoods where possible, but always remember there is a place for all foods in our diet. 


Written by Accredited Nutritionist and Accredited Practising Dietitian Millie Padula, founder of Dietitian Edition.