Do you think of carbohydrates as the devil at your doorstep?

Bread in a bakery
Nutritionist Michelle Yandle says we shouldn't be shying away from sourdough. Photo credit: Getty

By Michelle Yandle

It seems in perusing the nutrition world these days that carbs have become "the demon de jour". When I was a young yo-yo dieter, it was fat that was the devil and more recently it's become sugar. But why stop there? It seems most carbs are now on the do-not-eat list when it comes to health and have been vilified for everything from heart disease to obesity. But do we really need to go that far? 

Firstly, let's define carbs. Are they just potatoes, bread and rice? 

Carbs are found in so many foods including dairy products, fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, seeds and of course, sugary foods and sweets. They are made up of three components: fibre, starch, and sugar. 

Fibre and starch are complex carbs, while sugar is a simple carb.  When it comes to carbs, they all have a place in our diets but nutrient-wise, the more complex the carb is, the more beneficial it often is. 

The total amount of carbohydrates we need varies from person to person and as with all nutrition, it really needs to be an individualized approach, rather than fearing them altogether.  Here's why: 

1. Carbs have been a healthy part of human diets for centuries and beyond. 

Whole and fermented grains, root vegetables and legumes are superfoods in themselves and have been consumed in various quantities throughout history. Even my own indigenous ancestors ate wild rice, and kumara was brought to New Zealand from Polynesia by the Maori people and has been enjoyed since. 

The Blue Zones - where populations live measurably longer than other populations - all eat plenty of carbs. In some cases, up to 69 percent of their diet is carb-based. If it works for them, it works for me! 

2. Goodbye carbs  = goodbye fibre (and a whole lot of other good stuff!) 

Fibre is an important part of a healthy diet. Guess where's the easiest place to find it  carbs! Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes are all rich in fibre. 

Dietary fibre is important for our digestive health and regular bowel movements. Fibre also helps you feel fuller for longer, can improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and can assist in preventing some diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer.

3. Carbs are good for the gut. 

Gut health is all the rage these days and fibre-rich carbohydrates are influential when it comes to good digestive health. A diet with the appropriate amounts of fibre will feed and make beneficial gut bacteria thrive and the more of these little guys we have, the better. A healthy digestive system can improve our immune system, our mood and has a whole host of other benefits. 

4. Cutting them out can lead to a disordered relationship with food. 

Have you ever noticed that often our cravings revolve around so called 'forbidden foods'? Do you find yourself restricting, only to binge once you get a taste of the restricted food on your lips? Restriction leads to binging. There's a reason why we don't binge on broccoli! If you love and enjoy carbs, cutting them out completely can only lead to further problems down the road. All foods can fit in a healthy balanced diet. 

5.  Carbs make us happy. 

We don't need scientific evidence to prove this. There's nothing like a freshly baked loaf of sourdough bread or having real pasta with our Bolognese rather than zucchini. I'm sorry, but as much as I love cauliflower, it is just not the same as wood fire baked pizza. Enjoy these things as part of a diet full of balance, variety and moderation and you're improving your health, not diminishing it. 

Nutrition is not black and white or good or bad. Let's try to stop looking at foods in terms of macros but instead, thinking of them as a whole. Omit carbs and you're also omitting a culture staple full of fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and a whole lot of happiness for all of us who have grown to love them. 

Whole food sources of carbs can add to a healthy diet not take away from one. Find out the amount of carbs that works for you and your health goals. Include a variety of foods from carb, protein and fat sources.  Soon, you'll be able to have your cake  and eat it too! 

Michelle Yandle is a Certified Nutrition Coach and author of A DIet for 7 Generations and The Empowered Eating Handbook. 

She specialises in Nutrition Coaching for Empowered Eating so you can feel great AND eat cake! 

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