Everything you need to know about carbs.

Carbs.. it seems that there’s a love/hate relationship with them at the moment.. most people love the taste of them but hate them for ‘making us fat’ .. but should we really hate an ENTIRE FOOD GROUP??? Let’s break it down.. what are carbs, why do we need them and finally.. should we really love them or hate them? By UK Dietitian Nichola Whitehead from Nic’s Nutrition.


  • What are Carbs?

Carbohydrates, or carbs, break down in the body into glucose, which is what our body uses as a fuel source (i.e. energy) – our muscles and major organs use it to function optimally. Carbs can be broken down into two different types:

Starches – These include foods such as bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, lentils, quinoa and oats. There are smaller amounts of starchy carbs found in some vegetables such as parsnips and sweetcorn with some vegetables containing virtually none e.g. spinach, celery or cauliflower.

Sugars – These include natural sugars found in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) as well as the obvious table/added sugar (sucrose) found in processed foods such as biscuits, sweets and cakes. (FYI Sativa shakes contain no added sugar!).

All carbohydrates are a natural source of energy however some will provide more benefits than others. For example, starchy carbs such as potatoes will provide insoluble fibre (roughage!), vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium and copper, as well as energy, where as table sugar will just provide energy (and will rot your teeth at the same time!). Whole grains, such as granary bread, oats and wholewheat pasta can help to prevent heart disease and stroke; meaning the ‘brown versions’ really are better!

Fruit and vegetables are of course highly nutritious and an easy way to think of a balanced diet is to ‘eat a rainbow’ – eat as many (natural) colours as possible. Milk alternatives and soya yoghurt provide our bodies with calcium as well as protein and make a great post workout snack to replenish your glycogen (energy) stores. Talking of workouts, carbohydrates also enhance the uptake of amino acids (the breakdown of protein) after a workout, are filling (they can help to enhance satiety after a meal) and are relatively low in calorie; 1g of carbohydrate provides 4 calories, which is the same number of calories in 1g of protein and less than half that of fat (9 calories per gram).

  • Is Carb Quality or Carb Quantity more Important?

When it comes to health and weight, both are paramount however when it comes to blood glucose levels it’s the quantity that really matters.. the type of carb (or glycaemic index) is merely a “tinkering tool”.


When it comes to the amount of carbs that we should be eating a day this depends on a lot of things, but mainly how active you are! The more active you are, and the bigger your body, the more carbs that you will need to fuel it. As a general rule it is advised to eat around a fist-sized serving of starchy carbs at meal times (1/4 of your plate for weight loss and 1/3 of your plate for weight maintenance) – but you may need more if you are more active than the norm. A really easy guide though is to read the label on packets – go by the serving suggested e.g. 75g of dried pasta or rice – once you’ve weighed it out once then you’ll know what ‘one serving’ looks like!

We are advised to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day (I advise 5-9 portions; a portion is 80g or a handful, in order to obtain all of the nutrients, including phytonutrients and antioxidants, that we need. When it comes to milk/milk alternatives and yoghurt (including soya yoghurt) it is advised to eat these foods 2-3 times a day; a portion is either 1/3 of a pint of milk or 1 small pot of yoghurt. Cheese also counts towards your calcium and protein intake however doesn’t contain much in the way of lactose (carbs), so won’t be getting any more of a mention in this blog post!

Regarding our blood glucose levels (also known as blood sugar levels), the larger the quantity of carbs that you eat, the higher your blood glucose levels will be. This is why people with diabetes (who can’t control their blood glucose levels very well) are advised to spread out the carbs that they eat.. which is why eating a 4 slices of toast with a bowl of porridge for breakfast and then eating just chicken and spinach for dinner is NOT advisable! It would be much better to stick to just a bowl of porridge at breakfast and include some basmati rice at dinner i.e. spreading out the carb load.


Not all carbs are created equal, with some providing higher levels of goodness/nutrients than others. In general we should aim to eat an abundance of vegetables and salad, fruit and milk daily and starchy carbohydrates with our meals. The majority of fruit, including fruit juice, and vegetables, as well as milk/yoghurt have a relatively low glyceamic index (GI), which means that their energy (glucose) is released slowly – remember though that it is the AMOUNT of carbs (glyceamic load) that you eat that has the biggest impact on blood glucose levels.

When it comes to starchy carbs I suggest that you choose whole-grain and lower GI i.e. wholewheat pasta, quinoa, brown basmati rice (white basmati rice is also low GI but isn’t a wholegrain), oats, sweet potato, beans/pulses/lentils or muesli. In general, the less processed/more natural a carb is, the lower the GI (the body has to work harder with fibrous foods to release the energy).

When it comes to higher GI carbs such as white crusty bread or a jacket potato, the key is to eat them with some protein (which slows digestion and thus slows the release of glucose into the blood stream) as well as some salad or vegetables (added fibre to slow digestion further). A high GI carb such as a jacket potato, combined with a protein such as a homemade turkey burger, and fibre such as salad means that the overall GI of the meal is actually lower:

High GI Food + Low GI Foods = Medium GI Meal

However remember that it’s the size of potato that you eat that really matters.. stick to a fist size serving or 1/4-1/3 of your plate and you can still enjoy your potato guilt free ;) .

  • Should we Love or Hate Carbs?

To answer the question ‘Should we hate or love carbs’, the answer should be obvious.. they should be treated like any other food group – eaten in moderation, choosing the higher fibre options possible! When it comes to weight gain it’s an excess of CALORIES that causes it, not over-eating on one particular macronutrient (carbs, protein or fat). Having said that though it is often the high sugar, high fat and heavily processed carb snacks such as crisps, biscuits and cakes that are a) convenient and b) easy to over-eat on.. so try to eat these foods as minimally as possible – keep them out of the house if needs be!

My advice isn’t to ban or evilize an entire food group – some carbs are better than others so just choose wisely i.e. lots of vegetables and salad, fruit and milk daily and low GI/wholegrain starchy carbs in appropriate quantities to fuel your day. Pasta for example is perfectly acceptable to have with your evening meal however don’t fill your entire plate with the stuff and then load it with an indulgent carbonara sauce if you’re not running a marathon the next day!


P.S My favourite way to enjoy a Sativa Shake is to mix 1 scoop of the powder with 1/2 a frozen banana and ice (which makes the shake really thick), unsweetened nut milk and a handful of spinach. Here you have a healthy source of carbohydrate from the banana and a small amount in the Sativa and nut milk.. more carbs could be added for pre or post a work out in the form of oat flour (ground up oats!).

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About Nichola Whitehead

Nichola Whitehead is a UK Specialist Registered Dietitian and she has a passion for promoting easy to understand nutrition and diet tips through her blog http://nicsnutrition.com
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