Food Smarts Part II: are carbs the enemy?
Healthy eating is often conflated with a low-carb diet. There are good reasons for this – we tend to eat more chips, rice, pasta than we really need... especially when they taste so good. But is cutting carbs always necessary, and to what extent? How does eating carbs affect our fitness and health goals, whether it's losing weight, building muscle, or just regulating our blood sugar? In this article I unpack the reasons for and against a low-carb diet. All in all, the question should shift from "how do I cut out carbs?" to "how can my goals coexist with carbs?"
Why are we told to eat less carbs?
Carbs tend to make up a large portion of our plate, especially in Asian culture. While having a staple of rice or noodles is completely fine and even beneficial, it's important to know that any excess carbs that are not aren't used for short-term energy (i.e. daily activities, functioning, and exercise) are quickly stored for long-term energy in the form of fat. Yet we tend to eat more than we need, because...
They taste better, so we want more – think cookies, chips, pasta, soft drinks, rice...
As a species we are predisposed to crave carb-rich foods – prehistorically, carbohydrates fuelled the evolution of our brains
Less satiating, but more inexpensive than other macros i.e. protein and fat. Hence we eat more carbs to feel full. It's cultural too: you might have heard from older generation Asians that they would eat more rice than anything else to get full. My father himself once shared his nostalgia for salted egg – growing up in a poor but large family, they would eat salted egg with lots of rice.
The keto hype: originally designed as a treatment for seizures, the ketogenic diet of high fat, protein, and minimal carbs was eventually popularised due to its efficacy in jumpstarting weight loss amongst overweight and obese persons. (However realistically it is difficult to sustain, and may even be detrimental to health to do so.)
Why are carbs still important?
Here's the good news: carbohydrates are beneficial in both the short- and long-run, whether you're looking to lose weight, build muscle, or just maintain your weight. What determines weight change is ultimately your caloric intake. As a general rule of thumb, as long as you are eating more than you burn (caloric surplus), you will gain weight; if you eat less than you burn (caloric deficit) you will lose weight. In other words, you don't necessarily have to manipulate how much carbs you eat specifically, but instead manipulate how much food you eat.
Starchy carbs like potatoes, rice, and noodles give us energy to perform well in our workouts, whether training to lose fat or gain muscle. They also provide us energy to go about our daily tasks – carrying out chores at home, walking to and from the bus stop or train station, etc.
Fibrous carbs like leafy greens and fruits help to regulate our blood sugar levels, softening any spikes in blood sugar and energy. The high amounts of fibre also help us stay full for longer, and tend to hold high amounts of micronutrients important for daily functioning and good health.
Long term, permanent success in weight loss.
The presence of insulin in the bloodstream (as a result of consuming carbs) prevents the breakdown of muscle tissue post-workout. Insulin also interacts with growth hormone to prep muscle cells for growth.
Glycogen stores in our body tissues, replenished by consuming carbs, facilitate muscle growth.
At the end of the day, the best diet you can have is the one you can stick to for the long run. Consistency is key! Forming balanced, nutritious, and sufficiently satiating eating habits will help you achieve and maintain your health and fitness goals, with the lowest likelihood of rebound eating that often negates any progress made during a crash diet.
So how much carbs should we eat, and how do we avoid overeating?
Dietary guidelines advise the average person to have carbohydrates make up 45-65% of their total caloric intake. This means about half of your plate should consist of carbs, whether it's from fibrous, starchy, or processed carbs.
If a you're looking for an intuitive, fuss-free way to manipulate and observe your carb intake, you can use the plate-dividing approach – divide your plate into thirds. Dedicate a third to protein, and the rest to carbohydrates. Further divide your carb portion to have twice as much fibrous carbs as you have starchy carbs.
If you're interested in numbers and precision in your diet, apps like MyFitnessPal and RP Diet can help you determine and monitor how much carbs to consume everyday depending on your goal. Personally, I've been using the free version of MyFitnessPal for the past 8 weeks to observe my nutrition patterns systematically. I use an actual, handheld weighing scale to measure the weight of my food . It looks odd in public, but it's a small cost compared to how much I'm learning about my own habits, what I need, and how to balance pleasure with health and fitness goals. As you can see below, I still enjoy everyday local food like yong tau fu.
If you tend to eat carbs to fill yourself up, try eating your protein first, followed by fibrous carbs, then the starchy carbs. This way, you get to feel the effect of getting full before overeating on carbs. For example, when I scoop food into my spoon/fork, I pick up more 'liao' (Chinese dialect for topping ingredients or side dishes) with just a small bite of rice/noodles to go with it.
What kind of carbs should we eat?
As mentioned above, a variety of carbs help us achieve different goals.
For meals further away from your workout: fibrous and other low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates are ideal to give you enough energy for your day, but avoid sharp spikes that you don't necessarily need.
Tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, mushrooms
Wholegrain noodles (explore LG's range of wholegrain noodles)
Brown, purple, basmati, or mixed grain rice
Right before or after your workout (within 45mins): higher GI carbs right after your workout are ideal for giving you an immediate source of glycogen for muscle recovery and growth. While simple processed sugars can provide this effectively, they tend to be rich in calories for relatively small volumes (for example, a soft drink or sugary cereal) so those who are looking to lose weight should avoid them.
Pasta, noodles (explore LG's range of fresh noodles and pasta)
White rice, sushi rice
Refined bread, buns and pastries from bakeries, sandwich wraps
Dried fruits or juices, which are more concentrated in natural sugars
Corn, corn chips, popcorn
When I'm going to have a full day of teaching yoga and/or going to the gym, my plate tends to look like this: I have a good amount of carbs, as seen below – pasta to satiate, pumpkin or sweet potato for extra carbs and to tickle my sweet tooth, and a tofu-mushroom stirfry for protein.
Hopefully this article has helped you feel more at ease. Let your main takeaway be this: you don't have to sacrifice your palate, culture, or happiness to align with your health and fitness goals. You can still eat your comfort food from the food court or coffee shop. Just know your goals, be mindful of proportions, and don't forget to still enjoy yourself.
Tifanis is a yoga teacher and soon-to-be certified personal trainer. She loves all things food, wellness, and fitness. Her current obsession: finding plant-based alternatives for her favourite comfort foods.