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What does low carb mean?

15th November 2017 by Jess

Ever heard the phrase "I'm cutting out carbs"? Our nutritionist Jess talks us through the low carb diet. This blog post will educate you on ‘good carbs’, perhaps 'not so positive carbs’ and how much is just the right amount so you can enjoy your carbs with the utmost confidence that there’s a rightful place for them in your diet.

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Carbohydrates have had such a tough few years. Carbs have been demonised as making us fat based on the hypothesis that carbs spike or elevate insulin and insulin as the ‘fat storage hormone’ make us store calories as fat. It’s a nice hypothesis, with just the right amount of science to sound scientific enough for popular press and the million headlines, sadly it’s incorrect.

Jess, graze nutritionist
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What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are organic molecules typically classified according to their structure. And, structurally speaking, there are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are smaller molecules known as mono- and disaccharides since they contain either one sugar molecule or two sugar molecules linked together and they’re much more easily processed compared to other larger molecule carbohydrates.

Monosaccharides are the simplest form of carbohydrate and cannot be broken down any further since they contain only a single sugar group. Oligosaccharides consist of short chains (di-, tri-, etc) of monosaccharide units all put together.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are called polysaccharides since they have more than two sugar groups linked together. Polysaccharides are long chains of monosaccharide units all put together, and they're more complex to digest.

Depending on the structure and food source of the carbohydrate, will vary the affect it has in the human body.

The sub-type of carbohydrate will vary how quickly and/or easily the carbohydrate molecule is digested and absorbed.

Depending on the other nutrients that are provided along with the carbohydrate source; for example, fat and protein slow down the digestion and/or absorption, and our enzymes action in the mouth and gut will vary the processing of the carbohydrate.

Why do we need carbs?

Carbohydrates are primarily a source of immediate energy for all of your body’s cells. Carbohydrates also cause a release of insulin, which is a hormone produced by our pancreas. A larger insulin response can be beneficial at certain times (like after an intense workout) and not so beneficial at certain times (like before bed).

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How much carbohydrate do we need?

For the general population, the minimal recommended intake for carbohydrate is 130 grams per day.

This daily recommendation depends on body size and activity levels: bigger and/or more active people need more while smaller and more sedentary people require less, which is logical. Carbohydrate intake should be calibrated based on this simple logical understanding, it’s not a food group to be scared or wary of. Depending on levels of dietary fat and protein ingested will also vary carbohydrate intake.

Fibre is a variety of carbohydrate that is indigestible to the body. It comes in different forms (soluble/insoluble) and is important for satiety, blood fat levels, motility and gut health. Fibre is found in vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains and is recommended at an intake of 25 grams per day. The optimal amount is around 35 grams/day for women and 48 grams/day for men.

What does fibre do for your body?

What is low carb?

People following a low carb diet will be aiming between 30-225g depending on the intensity of their carb-limiting but 'low carb' is scientifically anything below the Daily Reference Intake (DRI), which for Carbs, it's 260g.

Moderate carbohydrate: 130 to 225g of carbs per day
Low carbohydrate: under 130g of carbs
Very low carbohydrate: under 30g of carbs

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Are carbs bad?

All carbohydrates we consume are digested into monosaccharides or simple sugars before they’re absorbed by the body, regardless of whether the food source is a simple sugar cube or a high-fibre, low glycemic index bowl of porridge.

It’s just that the “healthier carbs” are digested and absorbed much slower, with their nutrients intact, while the “non-healthy” refined carbs are digested very quickly and due to their level of processing, are stripped of their nutrients (think cakes, biscuits, sweets).

Once broken down and absorbed, these monosaccharides/sugars go to the liver to fill energy stores. After that, they enter the bloodstream and venture out to the other cells of the body. This is when insulin is released to handle this “sugar load” on.

Certainly refined carbs and sugar are no good for you — but that doesn’t mean you need to throw ALL carbs out of your diet.

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jess notes

It is calories and sugar, not carbs, that really matter in terms of fat loss, whichever dietary strategy helps you achieve this is the right one for you whether that’s low carb, high carb or somewhere in between. The most important thing to consider is your health and ensuring your food options are nutrient dense, you enjoy your foods and it’s sustainable.

Jess, graze nutritionist


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By Jess, graze nutritionist.

Our nutritionist extraordinaire, Jess trained at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and is a registered practitioner with the British Association for Applied Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She's the creator of our health badges, to help you choose the snacks and boxes that are right for you. Check out everything from Jess on our blog, with recipes and tricks to help you keep making better choices, or go to Jess's blog at jessipes.co.uk for even more.

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