Last week I gave a nutrition presentation to a group of hard-working employees from the mining industry. Not the underground, digging the coal-face type miner – more your average sitting-for-eight-hours-a-day-tapping-a-computer ‘knowlegde-worker’ type. We got onto the subject of carbs and after five minutes a girl in her mid-twenties (let’s call her Trudy) from the back of the class shot her hand up and said “I’ve given up all carbs and I’ve lost 5kgs in the last week…it’s the best thng I’ve ever done”. Crickets. I felt like I was smack bang in the middle of an AA meeting. “O Kaay then, thanks for that” I replied…I wasn’t giving a talk on weight loss but her declaration was testement to the hate mail carbohyrates had received of late.  After the presentation, Trudy approached me, lowered her tone, looked sheepishly at the floor and told me although she’d lost body weight, she’d never felt worse in her entire life. “David, I feel like crap…no energy, bags under my eyes and I swear my hair is falling out…what do you think…?” I told her what I normally tell people who’ve restricted their calorie intake to lose weight. “People can lose weight on just heroin you know – but it’s probably not a good idea…”

I know what Trudy was trying to say to me…. correction, I know what BS she was sprouting after believing media, newspapers, fitness magazines and the usual fitness advice fodder. Her words, back in the classroom, were said like a badge of honour. You see, over the last few years, just in case you’ve been living under a pile of potatoes – carbs are now public enemy number one – the black sheep of the good food family. Probably for two reasons: one, there’s no more food groups to pick-on. It was fat’s turn in the 80’s, protein in the 90’s and now carbs in the naughties. Second, after a string of recent ‘studies’ denouncing carbs as potential killers, ‘Big Food’ got on board and, prompted by the young pony-tailed marketing executive, started producing low carb everything – from beer to zucchinis and just about all foods in-between. Over the past five years, ‘low-carb’ labels on food are now more popular than booty shots of the Kardashians. Predictably, the ‘real’ low-carb message has been lost in translation and in one fowl swoop all carbs will now apparently leave you diabetic, heart attacked, stroked and brain damaged.

This message of course is complete rubbish. You see, not all carbs are the same. In fact, there are many different kinds depending on their chemical structure , but they ALL have one thing in common – when eaten and digested they provide energy for the body. Energy so you can breathe, beat, bend, balance and bonk. No carbs, no energy, no energy, we die. In fact, if we interrupted the continuous breakdown of ATP (Adenosine Tri-phosphate) to ADP (Adenosine Di-phosphate) on a cellular level (that’s a fancy way of saying let’s not shove any more coal into the steam engine) we would die a very quick and painful death. That’s probably why Trudy didn’t have enough energy to string a sentence together. She was low on carbs hence low on fuel. The danger for the uninitiated is that if we believe popular opinion, we internalise in our head the following equation:

All Carbs = Bad.

What we should be thinking is more like: Some Carbs = Bad.

But at the end of the day: Carbs = life.

So when Trudy tells me she has stopped eating carbs, what she should have told me was “David, I’ve cut out all sugar (and the other 55 names for sugar!), highly refined wheat, white rice, noodles, cereal bars, ice cream, biscuits, boxed breakfast cereal, white bread, donuts, chocolate, soda drinks, sweet milk drinks, sweetened coffee based drinks, sports drinks, fruit juice, shopping mall-made-smoothies, alcohol and every other food which causes my blood sugar to spike…and I feel fantastic!” (Side note:  these foods are ‘sometimes’ foods and when eaten in small quantities one day a week – your ‘free day’ – will not cause adverse health effects.  Eating them everyday is the problem).

You see, these are the true ‘bad’ carbs. The ones which should be eradicated from our diet. These are the ones linked to our typical western diet causing wide spread heart disease, stroke, diabetes 2 and neuro -degenerative diseases. These are the carbs which offer you nothing in the way of nutrients, disease defending vitamins, minerals and fibre. In fact, these ‘fast-acting’ carbs have been stripped of these things in order to make the foods they inhabit highly palatable and digestible (so you can eat them again and again). So, to refine our equation: fast-acting carbs = bad. Now let’s back up a minute. To some, including professional athletes and workers building a new railway through the Sahara Desert – fast acting carbs may be required to maintain energy and alertness. To a middle-aged office worker who does the equivalent of exercise akin to washing his or her office coffee cup, these carbs are bad news.

So, to the burning question, what food contain good carbs? Here’s a part list from my ‘Choosing Food’ eBook:

* Vegetables (natural, packaged, cut, chilled or frozen)
* Fruits (all varieties)
* Rice (wholegrain)
* Grains of wheat (wholegrain)
* Pasta (dried or fresh)
* Beans (all varieties)
* Lentils
* Chickpeas
* Mushrooms and other fungi (fresh and dried)
* Fresh and dried herbs and spices
* Tea without sugar
* Coffee without sugar
* Water (tap, spring or mineral)

This is the message Trudy should have taken from the current carb rhetoric. So the next time someone announces they’ve ‘stopped eating carbs’ look into their hollowed eyes and lifeless smile and help them on their way – they’re going to need it.