Diet & Nutrition

Everything you need to know about carbohydrates and low-carb diets

Australian MKR finalist and clean living cookbook author Luke Hines tells Sara Bunny what we need to know about a much-maligned food group.

By Sara Bunny
Eating a healthy diet but still crashing at 3pm? Trying to balance blood sugars but battling cravings? Gradually gaining weight despite regular workouts?
We hear you. These are all common health complaints, and they could all come down to your approach to one loaded little word – carbs.
These days, confusion around carbohydrates is rife, and when you add Insta-trending eating styles like keto and paleo to the mix, it's hard to know where to start.
In his latest book, Smart Carbs, Aussie fitness expert Luke Hines tackles everything from boosting energy levels to finding your perfect carbohydrate balance to fit your health goals. We caught up with Luke to get his take on one of the most talked about, and misunderstood, food groups.

The confusion about carbs is real

"There are just so many mixed messages about carbs," says Luke. "There are people in the paleo camp, then there's the strict keto camp, then there's the low-carb, healthy fat phenomenon. In principle, they are all quite similar, in that they are all about real food, but the carbohydrate levels differ quite dramatically between them.
"First of all, we should be reducing processed and refined foods, then reducing foods that can be inflammatory, as everyone agrees we could do with less inflammation. But what we don't all agree on, and what individuals differ greatly on, is carb level needs. Some people will lose weight and get lean and toned eating all the carbs in the world – we hate those people! Others have great results with a lower carb approach, but find keto too strict. On the other hand, going low-carb often isn't strict enough for the people who need to kick-start a change in their habits."

The amount of carbs you need is a balancing act

According to the personal trainer and nutrition coach, steadily gaining weight, or struggling to lose weight, could be indicators of carb dysfunction – in other words, subtle signs that you need to take a closer look at your carbohydrate intake. But there are also some other key factors that don't involve the scales.
"If you're someone who struggles with emotional eating, constantly having a rollercoaster of cravings, and getting that 3pm slump – it often means that your blood sugar regulation, or your hormone balance, is a little bit off," Luke explains.
"And that can come down to managing your healthy fats and your carbs."

Be cautious about the keto diet

It's the celebrity-endorsed eating style that has been in the news lately, but what's the deal with the ketogenic diet? Keto fans say it can promote rapid weight loss, but according to Luke, it's best used as a short-term kick-start rather than a long-term lifestyle choice.
"The keto lifestyle isn't for everyone," he explains.
"You have to be very disciplined and it requires a lot of forward thinking. I recommend doing keto for two to four weeks, so you reset your blood sugar regulation, reset your cravings and mood, then increase your carbs a bit and go low carb. This is more maintainable."

Forget the fads

If you're reading this and thinking all the talk of low carbs is just the much-maligned 90s Atkins diet in a different guise, Luke says think again.
"The Atkins diet was about fat from non-descript sources," he explains. "What they were forgetting was the vital importance of a good source of fat. I would never recommend to just eat fat because it's a high-fat diet. Atkins was also not specific about the quality or the sourcing of the food, they never said 'eat free-range nitrate-free bacon from happy pigs' – and most commercial bacon has fillers, toxins, all sorts of things. That's the stuff that the media write about when they say eating processed meat gives you heart disease and health issues. When you're eating small amounts of well-sourced protein, it's a completely different kettle of fish."

It's all about good fat

A plus of going low-carb is more leeway to enjoy fats, and Luke says saturated fats are back on the table – if they're from the right sources and naturally occurring.
"We're talking avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, the natural fat from animal protein – that's real fat. It's not manufactured, and it has not been heated to a point where it's processed and refined and has lost its health properties. It's just about nutrient density. For a long time we were told to avoid all fat, and we were told to avoid eating eggs and to only eat low-calorie food – we're moving on."

Eating healthy is about more than losing weight

"Weight loss should be the result of being happy and healthy – it's a side effect, a cherry on top, it should not be the driving force," says Luke.
"Happiness is the number one thing. If you're not happy, and you're not healthy, you will not lose weight. You'll be in that vicious cycle, going to all your fitness classes, looking the same every year with the same battles and the same seasonal diets.
"If you can be happy, your hormones will be better balanced, you'll manage your blood sugar, you'll manage your emotional eating, and you'll make the right choices because you're believing in yourself. That in turn leads to being more motivated to exercise and to manage stress better."

Avoid common mistakes

"When you start transitioning to a lower carb lifestyle, swap your processed and refined carbs to real sources," advises Luke.
"This way you're not cutting carbs, you're getting them from real food, and these work differently in your body. For example, 40g of carbs from a piece of white bread, is going to work very differently to 40g of carbs from a piece of sweet potato – as the sweet potato is going to be low GI and packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre. Nutritionally, you're getting the same amount of energy, but this form of carbohydrate is going into your body at a slower, more manageable rate, and it can regulate it better."

Conscious consumption

"I believe in food traceability, and I will never eat animal proteins unless I know that the animal has lived a natural life and has been killed humanely," he says.
"I eat less animal protein, but I eat it mindfully. Can you do this way of life as a vegan or vegetarian? Absolutely, yes. You will need to be upping the avocado, nuts and seeds, adding in olives and coconut oil, and lots of healthy fats. It will be challenging though, I won't lie. But it's possible."

Keto or paleo: what’s the difference?

They are two words that are used regularly in the wellness world, but what does it all mean?
Paleo
Is based on eliminating certain foods that are thought to harm gut health and can increase inflammation. This includes grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugars and processed foods.
Ketogenic
Is more about promoting weight loss by prompting the body to go into ketosis, a metabolic state where fatty acids are used for fuel, rather than the usual energy source, glucose.
Both eating styles encourage quality meat, plenty of non-starchy vegetables and leafy greens, as well as healthy fats like nuts, seeds and quality animal fats. The ketogenic diet is more rigorous, and fat, protein and carb percentages need to be closely monitored to make sure the body is in ketosis, with ketones present in the blood. Paleo is more flexible, and more of a lifestyle choice than a tool for a specific health outcome.

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