The war on carbohydrates

For most of us, eliminating a whole food group isn’t going to solve all of our problems — especially when it means cutting out lots of nutritious foods. Considering the latest research, is it time to stop the war on carbohydrates? Aisling Moran investigates.

Why is it all or nothing?

It’s not hard to understand the backlash against carbohydrates. We’ve seen this type of behaviour before with the “low-fat” movement of the 1980s. With the knock-on effect being an increase in carbohydrate intake, particularly sugar-laden, low-fat foods and refined carbohydrates — resulting in its own host of health problems.

So it’s no wonder that low-carbohydrate diets are on the rise. But this all or nothing attitude we have towards food doesn’t work for most of us. Certain types of carbohydrates, like fibre, are incredibly nutritious and can help you live a longer and healthier life. But don’t just take my word for it.

The latest on carbohydrates

Recent research commissioned by the World Health Organisation has weighed in on the topic. The researchers did an in-depth series of reviews and meta-analyses on the relationship between dietary fibre intake and risk of death from all causes and heart disease.

The review showed strong evidence that eating a diet relatively high in fibre can help protect you against chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

How reliable is the evidence?

When it comes to your health, it’s always good to be a little sceptical and dig into the research. So, just how solid is the evidence between fibre and health? In short, it’s very strong.

The review included a mix of both observational studies and randomised controlled trials — amounting to over 200 studies. The 185 observational studies included allowed the researchers to look at the relationship between people’s diets and whether they developed a disease, like heart disease or diabetes, over time. And the 58 clinical trials (including 4635 adults) on fibre looked at the effects of introducing a new diet and how it affected someone’s health. Overall, it’s a well-designed review.

The sweet spot

So, how much fibre should you eat to reap all these benefits? An intake of 25-29g of fibre a day is linked to a whopping 15-30% decreased risk of death from all causes or heart disease. As well as a lower incidence of bowel cancer, breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes. If you eat more than 30g a day, even better.

Unfortunately, less than 10% of people in the UK get enough fibre — most of us only manage to eat 18g of fibre a day.

Master a high-fibre diet (without the embarrassing side effects!)

Eating 30g of fibre a day might seem unachievable, but there are lots of things you can do to hit the magic number:

  • swap white bread, pasta, and rice for whole grain versions

  • opt for a fibre-filled breakfast like oat and chia porridge or overnight oats

  • add beans, lentils, and chickpeas to curries, stews, and salads

  • keep the skin on vegetables — like butternut squash, potatoes, and carrots

  • eat the rainbow — aim for at least five portions of different types of fruit and vegetables a day

If you don’t eat a lot of fibre and you suddenly start eating 30g a day, you’re probably going to experience some unpleasant side effects — say hello to flatulence and bloating. Instead, ease yourself into it by gradually increasing your fibre intake.

Another thing to keep in mind is that fibre and water go hand in hand. Depending on the type of fibre, water helps fibre slow down the rate at which food leaves your stomach — keeping you fuller for longer and stopping spikes in your blood sugar. Water also makes your stools bulkier so you don’t get constipated. Avoid downing loads of water at mealtime, aim to drink water consistently throughout the day.

Final word

This research provides good evidence that carbohydrates should have a prominent place in most people’s diets. But (and it’s a big but) you need to choose your carbohydrates wisely — limit sugary foods and refined carbohydrates and opt for fibre-rich foods and whole grains instead.