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Why are carbohydrates bad? A Parents Guide

Why are carbohydrates bad? A Parents Guide

As we welcome in the new year, social media posts claiming to provide a new answer for the best diet and health kick will hit like a tsunami! While a few will provide some credible insights, others will push an eye catching or novel quick fix that could put your youth athletes’ health and thus their sport performance at risk.

It’s hard to navigate the safe from the dangerous when it all looks so convincing. Youth Sports Nutrition are here to advise and guide you through the noise to ensure you youth athlete is in optimal health. One of the reoccurring topics over the new year, is the paradigms that are that carbohydrates are the enemy.Carbs span a huge range of foods from health enhancing fibre, to refined white sugar. Therefore, it is so confusing when talking about carbs and why a blanket statement to say whether they are good, bad, or neutral is hard to make. 

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates (aka carbs) are one of the three macronutrients (the others being protein and fat). Carbs have 4kcal per gram, the same as protein – although their functions are very different, and approx. half of the calories from fats (fat has 9kcal per gram).

Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy, providing our body with fuel that are made up of chains of sugars. They get their name from their chemical composition: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (carbohydrate). It is the length of the sugar chain making up the carbohydrate can determine how it is digested and absorbed by the body – the rate of absorption and key to the impact on health.

Carbohydrates are broken down into smaller sugar molecules called glucose, while fibre cannot be broken down into smaller sugar molecules, and so passes through the digestive system undigested. This may make fibre seem pointless, however the true extend of fibres health enhancing properties have only recently emerged. These include helping to stabilise blood sugar, aiding satiety, aiding the formation of nutrients in the gut to boost mental health, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing cholesterol to name but a few!

Of course, one thing not mentioned is fibre’s ability to reduce the likelihood of becoming constipated and regulate excretion of waste (poo). Therefore, it is safe to say fibre is health enhancing. But like everything you can always have too much of a good thing. 

How much fibre?

The recommended fibre intake is advised to increase from 20grams (g) per for 5-11year olds, increasing to 30g per day for those 17years and above. However, it is reported year on year that the daily intake for all age groups is significantly lower, with an average of 15g.

Table 1. The recommendations made by SACN for daily fibre intakes are


Recommended intake of fibre per day (g)








If you think your youth athlete isn’t meeting their fibre needs it would be idea to slowly increase by adding in a few extra pieces of veg, beans, grain, and fruit, as a rapid increase can cause bloating, and wind. Foods that are high in fibre are called ‘Complex Carbs’, and they should make up to 50% of the daily calorie intake.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are made up of chains that contain more than two sugar molecules. The more molecules in the chain the slower they are to be broken down and digest. These are generally foods that have not been processed and contain a high fibre content such as wholegrains. Complex carbs are natural prebiotic that boost our beneficial gut bacteria.

So all sounds great so far, so where did carbs get their bar rep?

Simple carbohydrates. Simple sugars are the name for the types of carbs that are fast-digesting, and generally found in processed foods.

Sugars such as glucose and fructose are examples of simple sugars. Sucrose is found in many foods, and provides the natural sweetness in honey, fruit, and maple syrup. Processed foods often include refined sugars that are extracted and purified from plants, like sugar cane, and high fructose corn syrup.

The rapid rate of digestion spikes blood glucose, which in turn signals the release of insulin. Insulin draws the glucose in the blood into the cells. A small amount during and post exercise can be beneficial as it can aid recovery and replenish used glucose stores. Glucose stored in the muscle is called glycogen. However, if simple sugars are regularly consumed the body can become overwhelmed. The blood glucose fluctuations can cause irritability, anxiety and can cause insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes mellites (T2DM) and obesity.

Many popular foods contain added sugars that increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, in the UK, the National Diet and Nutrition survey estimates that added sugar makes up 14% of the daily calories consumed by 11–18 year oldsAs in table 2, it is recommended to not have more the 5% of the daily carb intake from simple sugars.

Table 2. Daily carbohydrate recommendation from SACN


Percentage of daily food energy intake

Total Carbohydrate

Total carbohydrate includes all starch, sugars and dietary fibre.


of which free sugars

Free sugars are sugars added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juice

Not more than 5%


Why did they get this reputation?

Carbohydrates have recently developed a poor name and have been criticised heavily as more processed foods are consumed frequently by all age group, but particularly in children. The high palatability of simple sugars and their low fibre content can make them very easy to over consume. As with most foods a small amount is unlikely to cause any adverse effects, however the dose and frequency determines the poison!

Carbs cause weight gain?

Over consuming any food will results in weight gain (referring to fat gain) but carbs are essential to increase muscle mass, aid recovery and maintain mental health. When I come to weight loss the ‘quick fix diet locked on to the fact that carbs are water holding molecules. This can be greatly beneficial in aiding the motility of food in the gut and drawing water into the muscles. But for those fixated on the scale weight, the idea of increased weight (even if it is from water) can be a reason why cutting out carbs has become common.

Without carbs a large range of nutrients are missed – such as B vitamins essential for the metabolism, brain health, fibre and energyCarbs have had a bashing by the media as it makes for punchy headlines but remember the type of carbs consumed is the key feature in their action and health outcome. Not all carbohydrates are equal!


Natalie Rouse

First-Class Honours degree in Human Nutrition (BSc Hons), Master of Research in Performance Nutrition and Socio-culture (MRES), Registered and accredited Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition (ANutri), and Nutritional Consultant and Nutritional Research Scientist (RSci).  

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