Carbs have gotten a bad rap for way too long.
When we eat carbs, they break down to glucose which (under normal metabolic conditions) is our body's primary fuel. We then store the glucose in the form on glycogen in our muscles and liver, which we draw from in the hours following the meal, to keep our blood sugar (glucose) levels stable.
Carbs don't 'turn to fat' except under conditions of extremely high consumption (1).
There is nothing about carbs that makes them inherently fattening - in my clinical experience, it's usually what is eaten with the carbs (which isn't burnt off) that is the problem!
Baked potatoes won't cause weight gain, but if they're covered in sour cream and cheese (and you don't need the calories), they probably will! (You can read more about my thoughts on potatoes here).
If you have excess weight that you'd like to lose, the foundation of your meals should be high-fibre carbs with as little processing as possible, and lots of low-starchy vegetables (such as broccoli, pumpkin and green beans). The quantity of carb should be matched to your individual energy needs. A good visual guide for woman who is sedentary (i.e. sitting down at work all day), as about the size of your fist (which would be 1 medium potato, or 1/2 cup cooked grains). Eating this way will help to re-wire your appetite and allow to you to eat in accordance with your body's natural hunger and fullness signals, without ever needing to count calories.
Here's how to choose the best carbs -
The best carbs have been subjected to little or no processing:
- Whole grains such as brown rice, wile rice, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, freekah, farro, millet, amaranth, steel-cut oats, barley
- Potatoes & sweet potatoes
- Breads such as pumpernickel (made from rye) and sprouted bread (made from whole grains)
- Legumes and lentils
The following are a little more processed but are still good choices:
- Whole grain, sourdough breads
- Whole grain pasta and cous cous
- Dried fruit
The not-so-good choices*:
- White rice, bread and pasta - the outer bran and germ layer has been removed, so you miss out on nutrients such as vitamin E, B vitamins, minerals (including zinc, iron and magnesium) and fibre
- Processed breakfast cereals
- Rice cakes and rice crackers
*I've listed these as 'not-so-good', rather than 'worst/never eat' as sometimes life gets in the way of making choices that support 'optimal' nutrition, and that's okay! If you're out at a nice restaurant and there aren't any healthy options, just do the best you can in that situation. Food is about so much more than the physical act of eating - I would argue that every now and again, good conversation with family and friends is more important and nourishing than what's on your plate.
1. Acheson KJ, Schutz Y, Bessard T, Anantharaman K, Flatt JP, Jéquier E. Glycogen storage capacity and de novo lipogenesis during massive carbohydrate overfeeding in man. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988 Aug 1;48(2):240–7.