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Carbs – friend or foe when it comes to weight loss?

Carbs – friend or foe when it comes to weight loss?

Are you one of those who believe carbs are bad for weight loss? Do you cut out bread and pasta or restrict them after 5pm thinking this will help you lose weight?

Carbs have had a lot of bad press when it comes to weight loss, it’s time to give them the respect they deserve and show you how to use them to your advantage.

So what do we mean by carbohydrates (carbs)?

Like fat, carbs come in many varieties, some of which are helpful for weight loss while others are not. The family includes simple sugars, starches and indigestible components such as fibre. Whether or not they assist health and weight loss depends on how easy they are to digest and their impact on insulin, which is often described as the ‘fat-storing hormone’.

How does insulin work?

Carbs are broken down to glucose in your digestive system; glucose is then absorbed into the bloodstream where it is referred to as blood glucose. The body has clever mechanisms for keeping blood glucose within a normal healthy range; one of these is the hormone insulin. When blood glucose rises, insulin brings it back to a desirable level by pushing the excess into muscle and fat cells. There it is either used for energy (in muscle cells) or stored as fat (fat cells). When we dump a lot of glucose into the blood quickly (as after a meal high in refined carbohydrates), a large amount of insulin is released. Unless you are active, most of the glucose will go into fat cells. Put simply, insulin makes you good at storing fat. The other downside of too much insulin is that it can make you hungry – this is because it can lower blood glucose too much, needing you to eat to bring levels back up again.

A lifestyle based on refined and starchy carbohydrates (requiring lots of insulin) together with inactivity (fewer muscle cells and less demand for fuel) will see regular dumping of blood glucose into fat cells. Together with the stronger hunger that fluctuating blood glucose levels generate, this is a recipe for disaster when it comes to weight gain.

Which carbs are helpful?

Unprocessed, high-fibre, low-starch carbs should be included daily. They assist weight loss because they are slow to digest, enable good blood sugar control with minimum insulin and keep you full for longer.

The following advice may help

  • Include whole grains, nuts, seeds, most vegetables and fruit; these fill with less chance of fattening.
  • Minimise white flour and products made from it, eg. white bread, cakes, biscuits, pasta.
  • Minimise sugar and high-sugar products such as soft drinks and confectionary.
  • Watch portion size of starchy vegetables like potatoes, kumara, yams and parsnips. Have no more than 1/4 plate portion and leave skins on where possible, or combine with other high-fibre foods to increase fibre content.
  • Fill your plate with low-starch vegetables such as broccoli, salad greens, tomatoes, beans, cauliflower, leeks, mushrooms, peppers etc. These fill and provide protective nutrients while providing few kilojoules per gram.
  • Brown rice is the best rice choice as it takes longer to digest. If you prefer white rice, however, choose basmati – it digests more slowly than other white varieties.

A sample low-kilojoule menu based on healthy carbs


Untoasted muesli with fresh fruit and low-fat plain yoghurt


Tuna and salad with a piece of whole grain (high-fibre) bread (no butter or marg)
Piece of fruit
Small handful of almonds


Chicken stir-fry (heaps of vegetables) on 1 cup basmati rice


Fresh fruit
Light yoghurt
Grainy crackers with hummus and tomato


Bronwen King is a NZ-registered nutritionist and qualified chef, and regular contributor to Healthy Food Guide magazine. She specialises in population health nutrition and weight management and currently manages Appetite for Life, a primary care-based healthy lifestyle and weight management programme in Canterbury. She enjoys everything about food! Check out Bronwen's personal blog, www.eatlosewin.com.

First published: Nov 2012

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