CarbohydratesThere are lots of mixed messages surrounding carbohydrates, and this basics guide provides some insight to help separate the fact from the fiction.

Why do we need to eat carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates ultimately break down to form molecules called glucose and the human body is dependent on these to provide fuel. Have you ever noticed how when you get over-hungry or ‘hangry’ you are not only lacking in physical energy, but your focus and concentration goes? This is your body telling you that it needs more fuel.

Carbohydrates not only provide you with essential fuel, but they are also responsible for;

Storing glucose as glycogen – this enables you to maintain a constant blood glucose level. When glycogen stores are full, it will either be stored as fat or is broken down to create new energy stores. So for example, if you eat a meal, a portion of this will provide you with immediate energy and a portion of this will be stored as glycogen for ongoing energy provision. If you are consuming more than you are burning, then the rest will be stored as excess.

Hormone regulation – insulin and glucagon regulate blood glucose levels. Insulin is responsible for moving glucose from the blood into cells and glucagon is the hormone that releases stored glycogen when it’s required.

If your body doesn’t have enough glucose from carbohydrate sources, it will turn to your protein and fat stores instead. That might sound like a good idea, but protein and fat both have their own jobs to do (read more here.. protein, fats).

What is the daily recommended requirement for carbohydrates?

It is recommended that the daily intake of carbohydrates makes up 45-65% of your daily kilojoule/calorie intake. This should come from fruit, vegetables and whole food sources with minimal intake of processed high sugar sources).

Will carbohydrates make me gain weight?

The answer to this is yes and no. It all depends on the type of carbohydrates you are consuming. If your output of energy is less than your input of food, then you are likely to gain weight. It is also worth considering if your job is sedentary or active and how much physical exercise you do. The types of carbohydrates that are more likely to cause weight gain and should be consumed in low amounts are high sugar processed foods.

What are considered to be ‘bad’ carbs and what are ‘good’ carbs?

I don’t really like to define between ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’foods, but essentially what would be classified as bad carbohydrates are those that offer minimal nutritional benefit when consumed. These are foods that provide energy, but offer very little in the way of vitamins, minerals and fibre. This includes foods such as cakes, sweets/lollies, crisps, fried food, processed foods, fast foods.

What if you can’t resist all that sugary stuff? It’s ok not to eat whole foods 100% of the time and it’s really important to be mindful and aware of eating a balanced diet. It’s just important to be aware that highly processed foods lack essential nutrients and fibre. Occasional consumption is absolutely fine and its all about finding a happy balance.

Good carbohydrates, of course, offer nutritional benefit through vitamins, minerals, fibre and water. These foods include whole grains, vegetables, fruit, rice, legumes and bran and should be included in your daily diet.

What is the difference between refined sugar and unrefined sugar?

Refined sugar is processed and similarly to ‘bad carbohydrates’, this means a loss of any nutritional benefit (vitamins and minerals). Refined sugars are classified as granulated sugars, ie. the type of sugar you might put in your tea or on your Weetbix. A can of coke is the perfect example of how processed foods/drinks are full of refined sugars. One can contains 39g of sugar, that’s the equivalent to just over 9 teaspoons of sugar. How often would you sit and eat 9 teaspoons of sugar?

Unrefined sugars are those that still retain their nutrients, vitamins and minerals. These include honey, rice malt syrup, coconut syrup, agave and maple syrup. These types of sugars will offer more nutritional benefits.

It’s important to remember that sugar is still sugar and when consumed in excess, it can lead to an increased risk of disease. It is worth being aware that lots of sweet treats that are promoted as ‘healthy treats’ still contain high levels of sugar.

Is it true you shouldn’t eat carbs after 6pm?

This really depends on the type and the amount of carbohydrates you are consuming and links back to your food input versus your energy output. Evidence shows that smaller and lower calorie meals in the evening help manage weight, whereas consuming large calorific meals in the evening can lead to an increase in weight.

There is also evidence to suggest that the later you eat in the evening, the more calories you will consume throughout the day. This is when compared to eating your meal earlier in the evening.

What is the lowest carbohydrate alcohol?

Spirits are completely free of carbohydrates. What you need to be aware of are the mixers you use and the sugar contained within them. A perfect option is to drink vodka and soda mixed with fresh lime. Tonic water for example (don’t be fooled by the word water) contains 10g plus of sugar (the equivalent to 2.5 teaspoons sugar).

Have you got a question that hasn’t been covered? You are more than welcome to contact me and I’ll see if it’s something that can feature in the series.

de Castro, JM 2004, ‘The time of date food intake influences overall intake in humans’, The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 134, no. 1, pp. 104-111,
Kinsey, AW & Ormsbee, MJ 2015, ‘The Health Impact of Nighttime Eating: Old and New Perspectives’, Nutrients, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 2648-2662,
Whitney, E, Rolfes, SR, Crowe, T, Cameron-Smith, D & Walsh, A 2014, ‘Understanding Nutrition: Australia and New Zealand Edition’, 2nd edn, Cengage Learning Australia, South Melbourne.