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The Truth About Carbs (No, They're Not What Is Making You Fat)

Carbohydrate is a dirty word these days. Some even consider carbs to be the big, bad wolf of the nutritional world. But why is this the case?
Little girl eating spaghetti with her hands
Little girl eating spaghetti with her hands

Carbohydrate is a dirty word these days. Some even consider carbs to be the big, bad wolf of the nutritional world. But why is this the case?

Just in case you need it, here's a refresher: Carbohydrates are found in highly nutritious food such as bread, cereal, fruit, starchy vegetables, milk, yoghurt, legumes and beans. But they're also found in less-nutritious food such as lollies, chocolate, cakes and pastries, and drinks like soft drinks, cordial and fruit juice.

So, what happens in your body when you eat a bowl of pasta, a sandwich, an apple or even a chocolate milkshake? Well, the carbs in these foods undergo a series of metabolic processes beginning in the mouth and ending in the small intestine where they finally produce glucose (a form of sugar). These glucose molecules cross the small intestine and eventually find their way into the muscles and brain cells, where they are used as energy with the aid of insulin (a hormone that is released by the pancreas). Any excess glucose can be stored in the liver, but the liver has a limited capacity to house it -- about 150 grams all up.

So, why is there a common belief that eating carbs makes you fat? Sure, eating too much of anything will likely lead to weight gain. That simple equation of 'energy in versus energy out' rings true. But why are carbs so often made the scapegoat in this debate? Perhaps there is a misunderstanding of the biochemical processes that occur when we consume food.

When we eat foods we generally don't just eat one nutrient in isolation. My lunchtime sandwich is a case in point; it typically contains cheese, tuna and avocado, a combination of carbs, fat and protein. The protein component is involved in muscle recovery and building, but it can be used as an energy source if needed. Meanwhile, the fat and carbohydrates will be broken down for energy or stored in the body to be used as fuel at a later stage when there is a need to rely on energy reserves. Keep in mind that we have an endless capacity to store fat, whereas carbohydrate storage is greatly limited. Nevertheless, carbs are the body's preferred fuel source and the body would rather use them to keep it running effectively and efficiently.

So the carbs from my sanga will be predominately burnt for fuel, whereas only a small percentage of fat from the cheese and avocado will be broken down during this time. However, once the carbs are metabolised the body will predominately turn to the fat from the meal to fuel it. Therefore, if you over-consume carbs in the presence of fat, your body will preferentially break down more carbs and less fat. Subsequently, if your body doesn't churn through all that fuel, it will likely store the excess as fat. That cycle can be repeated over and over again resulting in lots of excess fat being stored. That probably goes some way to explaining Santa Clause's portly belly -- too much milk and too many cookies.

So should we avoid carbs altogether so our bodies burn the fat and therefore end the obesity epidemic? Well, no. It isn't that cut and dry. If only. It is important to note that the process of fat metabolism is dependent on a by-product of carbohydrate metabolism. And more than that, carbohydrate foods such as wholegrains, fruit and starchy vegetables as well as beans and legumes contain these wonderful things called vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre, which are brilliant for promoting optimal health. Good luck meeting your fibre requirements if you totally exclude these types of foods.

But then what is to blame for the obesity epidemic and the high rates of diabetes and heart disease currently crippling so many Australians? Well, it would seem that we can't simply blame one particular nutrient or food group.

However, one issue is clear: we are eating far too much.

Carbs, fat, protein and grog -- we are simply eating too much of all these things. The 2011-12 Australian Health Survey revealed that the average adult man consumed 9,655 kilojoules from food and drink each day while the average woman consumed 7,402 kilojoules everyday. And, based on the statistics of obesity, these findings would indicate that we are, by and large, taking in more energy than we need and we're not exercising enough.

So, with that knowledge, what are we to do? You could start by keeping your portions in check, eating more fruit and veggies as well as lean meat and dairy, eating less processed foods and going easy on the discretionary foods including booze. And get moving. It isn't rocket science.

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