For many of us, as we age, gaining weight or keeping weight off can be something that sits at the forefront of our mind. We are bombarded with information that maintaining a lean body mass is better for our overall health and that it significantly reduces our risk of a range of health issues.
So, we try to exercise more, and we want to make optimal dietary choices, but in an age of information, it can be easier said than done. One website tells us that a low-carb diet is the way to eternal youth, another tells us that keto is the only way to go. But even without going to extremes, does it pay to reduce our carbohydrate intake especially if we want to maintain a healthy weight?
We are going to answer this very question for you, but first, we need to take a look at carbohydrates in all their glory.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the macronutrients, along with fat and protein. In short, by very definition, they are needed in larger quantities for the body to thrive.
On a technical level, they are noted as CHO which simply means carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
The main function of a carbohydrate is to provide energy and they are the preferred source of energy for the brain.
When eaten, carbohydrates are broken down into sugar and transported wherever needs energy. The well-known hormone insulin is like the key to the lock that gets the sugar where it needs to go.
Red blood cells and the brain have an absolute need for glucose, which is why we are so efficient at using, storing and creating glucose. We can’t afford for the brain or red blood cells to be lacking energy can we?
When our energy demands have subsided, or we have too much glucose without a party to go to, it gets stored in muscle and liver tissue, but will also get shuttled to fatty tissue. Here it is converted to triglycerides. When we have an energy demand again, it is liberated for use at a later stage.
Glucose can be used very efficiently for energy, which is why when we are performing at high intensities, carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel. We can use fat for fuel, but this process needs more oxygen, so when we are at our limit, we can’t take enough oxygen in to help the process. Fat is great if we are heading out on a long hike, when we’ve got a steady intake of oxygen.
Do Carbohydrates Make Me Fat?
In short, yes.
If there is no demand for the circulating glucose from the carbohydrates, then it will be stored in fatty tissue. The body created this mechanism so we could eat in abundance when we had access to food and save some for later when food was scarce.
But any macronutrient in excess of energy needs will contribute to unwanted adipose gain, so we can’t completely vilify carbohydrates.
So Should I Cut The Carbs?
The thing to consider around weight gain is energy balance. We tend to gain unwanted weight if our nutrient intake is in excess of our energy needs.
In short, when we eat more than we use.
However, weight gain is not in fact this simple, and we also have a caveat to consider with the function of carbs.
Let’s start with the complexity of weight gain.
The Complexity of Weight Gain
There are hormonal considerations around obesity and weight gain.
All of the fat found in cells is stored in the form of triglycerides. Fatty acids are converted into triglycerides for storage, and then for fat to be used as energy, they are freed back into fatty acids and glycerol. Getting fat is the process where triglycerides are created more quickly than they are broken down.
This flow of fatty acids is regulated by a range of enzymes and hormones.
This isn’t surprising when we consider the role of growth hormone, it is what drives the growth of children and adolescents.
Let’s consider bodybuilding. Steroid hormones are used to increase bulk. In addition, if you take a trip down memory lane, chickens were injected with hormones in the 50’s to increase their size.
It seems that, on a simplistic level, certain hormones cause fat cells to suck up fatty acids more readily than they otherwise would or slow down the rate at which triglycerides are converted back.
What’s interesting is that both oestrogen and testosterone have been shown to decrease the rate at which certain cells take up free fatty acids, which results in keeping the fat cells relatively small. This is why you will notice differences in fat gain between males and females.
However, this is also the argument that leads to the menopausal weight gain scenario.
But in 2012, a review was carried out which suggested that the absolute factors for weight gain during and around the menopause were non-hormonal, rather than the menopause itself. What they did find was that fat deposits change during the menopause. In short, regardless of whether women gain weight during midlife, they will experience a shift in fat stores to their abdomen. So rather than hormones, or lack thereof, resulting in weight gain, they, in essence “relocate” the fat to areas which are likely more noticeable.
The other idea gaining momentum is that obesity is related to gut health. And we’re not just talking about the food that you put into your gut.
Studies have demonstrated that transplanting the microbes from an overweight mouse to a lean mouse, would subsequently make the lean mouse, fat. The reverse is also true. Now we’re not advocating faecal transplants to the general population, but it highlights an interesting concept that the microbes found in our guts play a role in the energy extracted from the food we eat.
There are several things that can influence the community of microbes found in our gut from the way we were born, to how we were weaned and then subsequent environmental exposure. Stress also influences the community in our gut, along with the diet we choose to eat.
Which leads us nicely to the other function of carbohydrates that we mentioned early.
The Importance of Fibre
Under the umbrella of carbohydrates, you will also find fibre. Fibre is the indigestible part of the food. What this means is that it finds its way through our digestive system relatively untouched until it gets to our large intestine. Here, the microbes in our gut have a feast! Like all things, what gets fed, survives, and so if we want a healthy community of microbes in our gut, we need to feed them!
Fibre supports our gut health, by promoting regular motility – it helps things move through the digestive system as they should.
Fibre supports balanced blood sugar levels – simple carbs are relatively low in fibre, but complex carbs take longer to be digested and so there is a steadier rise is blood-glucose levels.
Fibre supports our mental health – those microbes found in our gut also talk to our brain. When we have a certain community of fed and thriving bugs, compounds are released which support our mood and feelings. When there are low levels of certain microbes (because they haven’t been fed), those compounds are low, and we know that this can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.
So, the issue with cutting carbs is that you inadvertently cut fibre too! And fibre is a true friend.
Cut The Simple Carbs But Not The Complex Carbs
Simple carbs are those that are generally heavily processed. This means they don’t take much digestion and glucose is released into the bloodstream relatively quickly. This can be helpful if you are competing or have a particularly high energy exercise routine. But remember if you aren’t using the energy released, then it will get transported and stored for a later date.
Complex carbs take longer to digest, and they provide fibre for your gut.
The general rule of thumb is that 45-65% of your dietary intake can be carbohydrates but opt for complex carbs.
If you think about your plate, load half of it up with veggies, a quarter with starchy veggies like potatoes or rice and the other quarter with a protein source.
Use complex carbohydrates in your mealtimes, but if you are particularly active, simple carbs can be a useful energy source if you feel you need it.
If you are worried about weight gain, more often than not, carbohydrates aren’t the enemy. It’s the type of carbohydrate (remove processed foods where possible) and the total number of calories being eaten.
If you would like any guidance in optimising your health, then please check out our services to see how we can help.