September 22


What Is A Carbohydrate And Why Should We Eat Them?

September 22, 2022

In this post we are going to look at what a carbohydrate is and do we actually need to eat them.

When it comes to food it can be broken down into macronutrients and micronutrients.

Macronutrients are broken down into three categories, which are fats, proteins and carbohydrates. They are the foundation of our food. Within these macronutrients we find the micronutrients which are vitamins and minerals. Both macronutrients and micronutrients are important to fuel our body, build and maintain strong bones, joints and muscles, support our immune system, allow hormones and enzymes to carry out their functions for a healthy body. 

Carbohydrates are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are one of the macronutrients. In terms of actual food we can consider that they mostly come from the plant kingdom.  They are the sugars, starches and fibre found in vegetables, fruits, grains and in milk products. They are also found in many processed foods.

Over the last forty years since the food guidelines were introduced in the eighties there has been more of an emphasis on eating carbohydrates. Our current guidelines in the UK are advocating for more than 60% of our daily intake of food to come from carbohydrates. 

Now, whilst there is nothing wrong with carbohydrates per se, there are two points that are important to consider:

  1. We have no need to eat carbohydrates
  2. We now eat more carbohydrates than we can tolerate

We have no need to eat carbohydrates

Considering we are encouraged to eat mostly carbohydrates this seems a strange statement to make.

I am sure you have heard of essential amino acids (proteins) and essential fatty acids (fats). Essential in this case means that we have to get the amino acids and fatty acids from outside of our body. Meaning that we cannot make them, we have to eat them. 

There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate and that is because we can make all the carbohydrates that we need. I hear you ask - if we don’t need carbohydrates why are we encouraged to eat so many? 

That is a great question and maybe some day I will write a post about that.

In the meantime the important point to remember is that we have no need whatsoever to eat carbohydrates.

Whilst carbs do give us energy, our bodies can work perfectly fine without them. We can get all the nourishment we need from proteins and fats.

We now eat more carbohydrates than we can tolerate

For most of the time man has been on earth we have hunted our meat and foraged for plants. We have only been cultivating crops and growing grains in the last 10,000 years, which is a very short period of time in comparison to the rest of the time man has been on earth. 

It has only been in recent years that we have been able to grow plants all the year round and mass produce food. Prior to this we would have only had fruit and vegetables when they were in season.

We may have had an abundance of fruit and vegetables but only at the time of year when they naturally ripen and are ready to cook and eat. If you look at the natural cycle of fruits most appear in mid to late summer and we would have gorged on them. The purpose of doing that would be to store some fat in our bodies to help us get through the winter when it would have been leaner times. 

Nowadays we have greenhouses and fast transportation that enable us to grow fruits and vegetables out of their normal season or bring them in from countries that have warmer climates. Also, today farmers are able to protect their crops so that there is less chance of them being wiped out or spoilt by pests and weather. 

The consequence of fertilisation, greenhouses and transportation enables us to eat fruits, vegetables and grains all year round in large quantities. 

With the messaging we receive from our food guidelines and the availability of carbohydrates we are now eating more carbohydrates than we ever did before. The problem arises because from an evolution perspective we are not built to process so many carbohydrates and for many of us our bodies cannot cope.

Are Carbohydrates Bad For Us?

It depends. Carbohydrates should not be bad for us. About 10% of the population do not have a problem processing carbohydrates.  That said because of the excessive amounts we eat nowadays 90% of us are struggling with our health and our weight.

I do not demonise carbohydrates, however it does depend on how many you eat regularly and how healthy you are and if you are overweight. 

If you are struggling with either health or weight then it might be time to look at the amount of carbohydrates you are eating and consider whether it is time to cut them back.

Should I cut down my carbs?

If you have any metabolic health issues like Type 2 Diabetes, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, some cancers including breast, bowel, and a number of other cancers, then you may wish to consider reducing the carbs you are eating to help your body process what you do eat better.

If you are overweight there could be many reasons for that but it is worth considering that too many carbohydrates may be the problem.

Even if you are slim and don’t have any ailments, you might still have metabolic health issues so it would be good to test your metabolic health. 

What should I do?

The first thing to do is take a good look at how many carbohydrates you are actually eating. Download an app like My Fitness Pal, Cronometer or Carb Manager and log all your food and drinks for 3 days.

It is really important to be honest with yourself and log absolutely everything.  This will give you a good baseline and understanding of where you are. 

As a general guideline if you are eating more than 150 gms of carbs a day then chances are you are eating too many. As mentioned before this does depend on the individual and what is happening in your body and with your metabolic health. 

In summary, we have been encouraged to eat most of our food intake as carbohydrates even though our bodies cannot cope with the amount we are eating. 

For many people this is causing adverse health issues and/or weight gain.

There is no physiological reason for us to eat carbs as we can make all the carbohydrates we need within the body.

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