The truth about carbs part one

Mixed messages pervade the topic of carbs in the popular media. So what’s the verdict? By Dr Joanna McMillan Price and Judy Davie.


They’re in and then they’re out. Poor old carbohydrates have taken quite a flogging over recent years as diet after diet hits the shelves, blaming these foods for expanding waistlines (and almost every chronic disease plaguing the Western world).

Yet health authorities and most dieticians continue to promote a high-carbohydrate diet as the healthy choice. It’s little wonder so many people are completely confused about whose advice to follow.

There are elements of truth on both sides of the argument and that is because you cannot simply lump all carbohydrate-rich foods in one basket and say carbs are good or bad.

We have to consider the qualities of the individual food before we say whether it is a good or bad choice. So what would make a carb a good choice?

The best and worst of carbs

The best carbs will:

  • Fill us up and keep us satisfied between meals so that we eat less and don’t snack on the wrong things
  • Deliver glucose slowly and steadily into the blood, keeping our blood glucose on an even keel
  • Be rich in different types of fibre to keep us regular, our bowel healthy and our cholesterol down
  • Be nutritionally rich, providing an array of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals such as antioxidants

The worst carbs will:

  • Be rapidly digested and absorbed, leading to glucose ‘spikes’ in blood after eating which damages blood vessels
  • Lead to a rapid fall in blood glucose an hour or two after eating, stimulating hunger and inducing cravings, especially for sweet foods Stimulate a big release of insulin and, if it happens chronically, will increase fat storage and reduce fat burning
  • Provide carbohydrate but little else – ‘empty kilojoules’

Looking at carbs in this way makes it easy to see why there is so much controversy and it also makes it easy to see how we can reap the benefits without the pitfalls. The best-performing choices are obviously those that deliver as many of these positive attributes as possible.

The clear carb winners

  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • wholegrains
  • legumes
  • pulses

These are the least common choices in most Western diets and it is therefore not surprising that carbs have been blamed for many of our ills.

Why do we need carbs?

There are many good reasons to include carbohydrates in your healthy eating menu, including:

  • For optimal cognitive performance
  • To perform at our best during exercise
  • To maintain a healthy bowel
  • Carbs are relatively cheap, readily available and easy to store

This is an extract from Star Foods: selecting a winning team of foods for good health by Dr Joanna McMillan Price and Judy Davie. Published by ABC Books. RRP $35.


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