It’s 2020 and if you’re still demonising carbs and blaming them for any extra weight your carrying, you’re doing yourself more harm than good. Simon Hill, Founder of Plant Proof is to explain why and prove, once and for all, that carbs are our friends.
The Basic Science Of Energy Balance
Firstly, it’s important we understand what macronutrients are and the basic science of energy balance. When we eat a meal we are typically ingesting a mixture of 3 macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein & fats) which carry a certain amount of energy, in addition to micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals etc.) which do not provide energy.
While fat provides 9 calories per gram, carbohydrates and protein both provide 4 calories per gram. Thus, every meal has a total energy value (calories) based on its macronutrient profile. We bring this energy into our body through the consumption of these macronutrients and we use this energy for our vital functions, such as breathing and maintaining our core body temperature, and also for physical activities like standing up, walking, running and surfing.
At the end of the day, we have consumed a certain amount of energy from our food and expended a certain amount of energy from being alive and active. If we are consuming more energy than we are burning, we are in a ‘calorie surplus’, and thus are in a position to gain weight simply because we are giving the body more energy than it’s burning, so it stores the surplus as fat for use at a later date.
Carbs + Weight Loss
“But Simon, I keep seeing ‘low carb and ‘Keto’ fat-burning ads everywhere and have friends who cut carbs and lost weight”. This brings me to my next point. Losing weight is as simple as creating a ‘calorie deficit’, the opposite of what we have discussed above, whereby you are consuming less total calories than you are burning per day. This means you can literally lose weight with any diet, including a Keto Diet, as long as you are in a consistent calorie deficit whereby your body’s requirement for energy is exceeding what you’re giving it, making it naturally utilise stored sources of energy . Your friend who lost weight by going on a Keto diet likely did so because they were in a caloric deficit – not because they cut carbs!
A major systematic review compared users on a low-carb vs a simple calorie restriction and found absolutely no difference in terms of weight loss . Essentially, this means that as long as we’re in a calorie deficit, we can enjoy carbs guilt-free!
The point is that just because a certain person lost weight by eating no carbs doesn’t mean their food selection was healthy, and this is the biggest problem with social media today. When we see a young, fit girl with popping abs promoting a Keto diet (low carb, high fat), we assume her muscles must be indicators of health and vitality. However, we are confusing weight loss with health – and the two terms are certainly not synonymous.
While there is no long-term scientific evidence to support the notion that a low-carb high-fat keto, carnivore or even paleo diet can be beneficial for longevity, a high-carb low-fat diet is the only diet to ever be clinically shown to reverse heart disease, the number one killer in most Western Populations.
The good news is that a plant-based diet can help us achieve both healthy body weight and long-term health by eating an abundance of healthy whole foods – just like the longest living populations in the world [3–5]. With a plant-based diet, you don’t have to choose between looking good and preventing disease: you can have both a slim waistline and vitality today and in the future, simply by steering clear of diet fads and making evidence-based food choices.
“So I can enjoy carbohydrates like healthy populations and still lose my tummy fat?” Yes! In saying this, now that we understand the principles of energy balance and what macronutrients the healthiest people in the world eat, we need to also understand that not all carbohydrates are equal.
Because of the mass industrialisation of our food system, our supermarkets are now flooded with many products that contain refined carbohydrates. Typically, these foods have been stripped of fibre and contain added sugars, contributing to an overall lower nutritional value compared to carbohydrate whole foods in their original form. A good example of this is comparing apple juice with added refined sugars to a whole apple. Not only is fibre removed in the juicing process, manufacturers often add refined sugars to the juice to make it sweeter and more palatable. In essence, they are taking a perfectly balanced whole-food fruit, removing fibre and adding sugar, making us consume a lot of calories without any nutritional benefits or making us feel the slightest more full. The point is that when I say you should enjoy carbohydrates, I am in no way advocating for gorging on white ultra-processed bread.
A distinction between refined and unrefined carbohydrates is essential. In fact, there is plenty of data showing that consumption of refined carbohydrates is just as bad as diets rich in fat in terms of disease risk, which is precisely why poorly designed studies looking at low-carb diets versus high-carb diets, with subjects in the latter group eating a lot of refined carbohydrates, unsurprisingly found no difference between the groups in terms of disease risk or mortality. But when they replace saturated fat with unrefined carbohydrates subjects had a significantly lower disease risk . Adding to that is the findings of a 2019 scientific review showing adequate dietary fibre intake from whole plant foods rich in carbohydrates, significantly reduces one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal and breast cancer .
Lastly, here are my top tips for achieving healthy weight loss:
1. Eat less energy (calories) than you are burning.
You can work with a health practitioner in order to determine this or use a calorie tracking app like Cronometer. This is a great way to learn what’s in your food and take control of your health. Never forget that the basic principle of weight loss is an energy deficit and it’s not due to some fancy product or service being marketed to you.
2. Do not restrict a certain macronutrient.
Healthy diets are made up of 50-70% (unrefined) carbohydrates, 15-20% fat and the remainder protein.
3. Eat more whole plant-based foods
Including legumes, unrefined grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice etc), nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables and LESS animal products. Naturally, by doing this you will more than likely lower your calorie consumption because plant foods are far less calorie dense than animal foods, and they provide an abundance of dietary fibre which helps keep you fuller for longer. An added bonus of shifting towards a more plant-centric diet means you will reduce the impact your meals have on the planet by directly affecting resource utilisation and greenhouse emissions, help reduce the demand for factory farming and reduce global hunger.
4. Eat less processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods have had their fibre and micronutrients reduced and are made by food scientists to get you addicted. When you’re addicted to their products you are a returning customer and are no longer attracted to the food that nature offers directly.
5. Got a sweet tooth?
If you do want to sweeten your meals beyond the natural sweetness that fruits offer (usually berries and dates etc are enough for most people) I recommend blackstrap molasses or maple syrup which at least offer some nutrition along with their calories. Stevia, despite being 0 calories, is something I advise you to avoid unless you grow it and use the whole leaf. In its whole form, as a green leaf, it’s been well studied but in its bleached powdered form it has undergone extensive chemical processing and is poorly studied with regards to benefits and risks on human health. Ultimately, the more you stick to whole foods, the fewer cravings you will have for artificially sweetened meals and you will begin to look forward to truly healthy meals.
6. Coconut oil myth-busted
Coconut oil is nothing but >85% saturated fat. It’s not some miracle superfood and has no long-term evidence suggesting it’s beneficial. Get your majority of fats from unsaturated whole food sources such as nuts, seeds & avocados. My personal favourites are ground flaxseed and chia seeds. With regards to cooking, I recommend shallow pan frying in water, vegetable broth or tamari in place of oil which will save you calories and allow for more nutrient dense eating across your day.
7. Drink more water.
A lot of the time we head to the pantry we are actually thirsty, not hungry.
8. Move more.
If you are finding your weight has plateaued then you either need to drop your calories further or move more. They are the two levers you can move.
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-  Buettner D. The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People. National Geographic Books; 2015.
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-  Briggs MA, Petersen KS, Kris-Etherton PM. Saturated Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease: Replacements for Saturated Fat to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk. Healthc Pap 2017;5. doi:10.3390/healthcare5020029.
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