There are three macronutrients that the body needs to work at its optimum and they are Protein, Fats and Carbohydrate.
Protein, which is found mainly in Meat, Fish, Poultry, legumes, nuts, dairy foods and eggs, is the building and rebuilding nutrient. Generally known as essential protein. (or Amino Acids)
Fats, to put it very simply indeed, are also important and they keep everything in working order, a bit like putting oil in your car! These are known as essential fats.
Carbohydrate is for energy. Only a small amount of this Nutrient is essential because the body can convert energy from protein and fat.
The delicious looking scones, with jam and cream have all three nutrients. But they are very heavy on the carbohydrate.
This plate (My Christmas Dinner last year!) has just about the right balance of all three, but much healthier, because it is lighter on the carbohydrates. But not carbohydrate free or very low. If I had potatoes with it then this would be additional carbohydrate.
A look at how we use carbohydrate in our daily diets
For the last thirty years we have all been led to believe that we should be lowering our intake on fats and proteins and eating more grains. (Carbohydrate.) Indeed the Food Industry have cashed in on this and given us a whole lot of foods that are low in fat. (1)
We are advised that we need to eat a balance of all three macronutrients, which is true of course. The problem is that there is some dispute of what is the right balance. The question I am attempting to answer here is how do you get the balance right? What is the balance for each of us? Is there a one size fits all?
Most people have heard of a chap called Dr Atkins. He of the Low Carbohydrate, High Fat Diet. (2) Although he had actually been around in the Dieting Industry for a number of years,(3) suddenly a few years ago his book and diet were all the rage. He advocated eating extremely low Carbohydrate and a lot of fat! The Western world was in uproar and millions of people went on the diet and lost a lot of weight. Some kept it off and others put it back on again as they found it too difficult to stick to in everyday life.
Medical Authorities were warning people about the high fat content. They had been totally believing their low fat mantra for decades, even if it had not worked and there was the beginnings of the present Obesity Epidemic.
Things calmed down and gradually the Atkins diet was just another book on the shelf. But the idea of low carbohydrate stuck with many, and more and more people are finding that they can lose weight and keep it off by sticking to this way of eating. Within this society of people though, the levels of carbohydrate vary.
We hear of some people who do not have any carbohydrate at all. We hear of others who can incorporate a certain amount into their diet. We hear of others who still have far too much.
So how much is too much?
What exactly do we mean by low carbohydrate? When you mention to many people, including medical people, that you follow a low carbohydrate diet, they hold their hands up in horror. A friend of mine recently tried to blame my illness at the time, on my low carbohydrate diet, until I explained that actually I do have some carbohydrate in my every day way of eating. People are assuming that low carbohydrate is NO carbohydrate. They seem to think that we simply cannot live without quite a lot of carbohydrate, consequently we have reached a point where people are consuming more and more. Looking back on the last 60 years or so we have come from just one biscuit, perhaps 50 calories, with our morning coffee, to having a chocolate bar or doughnut or packets of crisps which can be 200 calories or more, and that’s just one snack.
In the last thirty years we have been advised to “Base our diet on starchy foods.!” (4) So we have gone even more over the top with carbohydrate.
The correct amount of carbohydrate rather depends on your dieting history. If you have NEVER been on a diet and NEVER had issues with food, and you are in the correct BMI bracket, then you would probably be able to eat a larger amount than someone who has spent all their lives bingeing on it and eaten far too much of it one minute, and starving the next by not eating very much of anything! It is interesting to note that people who binge or cannot stop eating, generally consume huge amounts of carbohydrate because their appetite is never satisfied. But that is another subject for another post, which will cover sugar and addiction.
The person who has never been on a diet and eats with awareness of what their body wants and needs, would probably eat carbohydrate at sensible amounts throughout the day, with the occasional piece of cake as a treat. But the main thing you may notice is that their meal is a reasonable size and they would stop eating when they are full. So that their carbohydrate intake is automatically controlled.
For example for breakfast they might have a small portion of porridge or muesli with yoghurt or full cream milk.
Their evening meal would be perhaps meat and veg, with a bread roll, accompanied by a glass of wine maybe, followed by a coffee and a piece of dark chocolate. On the odd occasion they might have a dessert.
(This diet is typical in a day of a friend of mine who has NEVER had a weight or food issue.)
Notice that this is not without carbohydrate, but neither is it the amount that many people would consume, such as cereal for breakfast, mid morning sugary snack, Sandwich for lunch, afternoon snack, and pasta or pizza for Evening meal.
However for someone who has always dieted, binged or simply made carbohydrate the mainstay of their lives the amount of carbohydrate in the above diet may be too much for them to lose weight on, because they have become what is known as insulin resistant (5) and their body cannot deal with many carbohydrate foods at all. Although I would suggest that many people who have a lot of weight to lose, would initially lose on this regime as the carbohydrate would have dropped considerably from what they were consuming originally.
However as they lose weight and get nearer to their goal they may have to drop their carbohydrate intake down to a much lower level. But the level does not have to be extremely low. This is where the confusion comes in for many people. After extensive research Zoe Harcombe reached the conclusion that we need very little carbohydrate to operate. (6) Reasonably speaking this would consist of something like a protein breakfast, with protein and salad or green veg for lunch and evening meal. It does not mean going without carbohydrate altogether.
There is also the myth about that if you don’t have carbohydrate you automatically eat too much fat. Which is why there was so much concern about the Atkins diet. People went from eating very low fat to eating copious amounts of it and ended up feeling terrible. I well remember a certain journalist at the time who reported that she had made herself ill by going on the Atkins diet and after five days she had to abandon it saying that the diet was horrible.
In the end it is finding out what is the right level for you
The basic rules are simply this. Eat real food, with a natural level of fat. Don’t be afraid of the fat that is in meat and milk without it being stripped of its natural fat content. Don’t worry about eating chicken skin or pork crackling, enjoy it! Have vegetables and salad with perhaps a sugar free home made dressing, based on olive oil (most shop bought dressings have sugar in them, especially the low fat ones, and sugar is Carbohydrate.) Have butter on your vegetables because the fat helps the body to assimilate the nutrients.(7) Enjoy a creamy yoghurt. Have some clotted cream on your stewed fruit, but not too much! And its a good idea to stay away from the low fat foods that are being sold to us, that have added sugar to make them taste better!
Start reading labels and notice what goes into our food
This is how people ate for many years before we even heard of slimming diets and the low fat mantra and people started eating too much carbohydrate to make up for the lack of fat and taste in low fat products.
You will have to find a level of carbohydrate that is right for your own body. No two people are alike. Put simply if you want to lose weight, then the more carbohydrate you eat, the less chance you will have of losing. BUT everybody’s levels are individual and this is where you will need to experiment and find out your level.
So perhaps it would be best to avoid the phrase “Low Carb” and just say that you are eating LESS carbohydrate. For the enlightened Low Carb simply means LOWER than society at large is eating these days.
(1) Read more with Robert Lustig, Zoe Harcombe, Gary Taubes and many more authors.
(2) and (3) Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution. (Latest edtion titled New Atkins-New You.)
(4) The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes. The Obesity Epidemic by Zoe Harcombe
(5) Fat Chance by Robert Lustig
(6) The Obesity Epidemic by Zoe Harcombe
(7) Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora T. Gedgaudas, CNS,CNT (page 179)