Carbohydrates are one of the most misunderstood food groups and often get a bad rap. Recently, someone told me they were confused about carbohydrates because they been told by a low-carb advocate that there is no dietary requirement for carbohydrate at all.
While it’s true that we can survive with a very low carbohydrate intake, there’s a huge difference between surviving and thriving!
What are carbohydrates for?
Our bodies need carbohydrate for energy. Carbohydrates are broken down to glucose which is used for energy by our body’s cells. The biggest consumers of glucose are our brain and muscles – our brain alone uses around 120g of glucose a day just to function. As a backup, our body can use other sources of fuel. When there is a lack of glucose, our bodies can use protein or fat for energy. Fats are broken down into fatty acids and ketone bodies. Our brain uses ketone bodies in the absence of glucose. Technically we don’t need carbohydrate for energy but using fats and ketone bodies isn’t our bodies’ preferred source.
What happens when you avoid carbohydrates?
By avoiding carbohydrates, you cut out a large group of foods that provide a wide variety of nutrients and dietary fibre. Legumes, whole grains, fruit and vegetables all provide different types of dietary fibre which keep our bowels healthy and fuel our gut bacteria. They also provide a wide range of nutrients our body needs to be healthy. When you remove carbohydrate-rich foods, it can become more challenging to get the fibre and nutrients our body needs.
Most people enjoy foods that contain carbohydrates – they taste good! Of course, food is a source of fuel and nutrition, but enjoyment and satisfaction are also an important part of our eating experiences.
While individual needs for carbohydrates will vary because of factors such as activity levels and health status, saying carbohydrates are not needed misses the bigger picture. Many carbohydrate-rich foods are nutrient dense and play an important part in a balanced, sustainable and nourishing diet.