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'Forget the fads. Enjoy your spuds and bread' - Why it's time to stop painting carbs as the villain

Painted as the villain macronutrient for far too long, it's time to rehabilitate carbs such as Irish staples potatoes and bread, writes dietitian Orla Walsh starting with traditional Irish staples...


Healthy advice: Nutritionist Orla Walsh. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Healthy advice: Nutritionist Orla Walsh. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Irish staple: potatoes

Irish staple: potatoes


Healthy advice: Nutritionist Orla Walsh. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Potatoes, bread and the carbohydrate food group of which they are part have been vilified time and time again. But do they really deserve their bad reputation? While it's easy to label some foods as either 'good' or 'bad' or something to avoid, carbohydrates - like most foods - are a little more complex than that. So where did it all go wrong for the humble spud and friends?

Potatoes fell victim to the 'low carb' movement and if social media is to be believed, the white potato has had it's day while the sweet potato can do no wrong.

Unfortunately, a lot of the myths put out there about food can be fuelled by unqualified people giving advice on nutrition. Fortunately, nutrition is a science and not an opinion.

Nutritionally, the potato has a lot to offer. A typical potato contains 10pc of the daily requirement for vitamin B6, 30pc of the daily requirement for vitamin C, 2g of fibre and 3g of protein in just 110 calories. If that doesn't impress, one potato provides 13pc of the daily requirement for potassium, which is more than the amount contained in a banana. Here, in more detail, are just some of the impressive attributes of spuds:

› Vitamin B6 - Contributes to the normal functioning of the nervous system and the immune system as well as psychological functioning and the reduction in tiredness and fatigue.

› Vitamin C - Contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system during and after exercise, as well as normal collagen formation as needed for healthy bones, teeth, gums, skin and blood vessels.

› Potassium ­- Contributes to the normal functioning of the nervous system and muscles, as well as helping to maintain healthy blood pressure.

› Fibre - Is necessary for a healthy gut. It also feeds our gut bacteria, can help lower cholesterol, and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. It's also required to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

› Protein - Helps a person to feel full and stay full. It also feeds muscle and bone tissue which are responsible for a bulk of the body's metabolism.

Sometimes potatoes are tagged with the 'high GI' label and therefore dismissed. The glycaemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly or how slowly foods cause increases to blood sugar levels. Although often associated with the treatment of diabetes, research has found that low-GI diets can help people get to and stay at a healthy weight. A low-GI diet or consuming meals with a low-glycaemic load will also help a person to achieve optimal energy levels and sustain it across the day. The GI of potatoes can differ depending on what variety they are, how they are cooked, and what they are eaten with. Therefore, it's inaccurate to suggest that all types of potatoes, served any way, are 'high-GI'.

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The other thing to note is that when a food is eaten with a fat and protein source, the GI of the meal is lowered.

Have you ever seen someone eat a plain spud on its own? It's usually cooked in oil or has butter added to it, and it is often served with meat, poultry or fish, as well as vegetables. This fact alone negates the GI debate on potatoes.

Another plus point for potatoes is that they are low in fermentable carbohydrates, called Fodmaps. Fodmaps can go into the gut, causing gut symptoms such as bloating, distension, excess gas and diarrhoea. As potatoes are low in Fodmaps, they are often quite digestible.

What about bread?

The myth that bread is an unhealthy food choice has grown legs. So much so, that it's common to hear someone proudly proclaim that they have given up bread, as if this one step will lead to monumental change in health.

It's a challenge to understand how the myths surrounding bread grew. It may be partly due to the fact that all bread is considered the same in the carbohydrates-are-bad debate. However, there is a big nutritional difference between homemade high-fibre bread and highly-processed, low-fibre bread.

Is bread making us fat?

Interestingly, if you were to observe mealtimes of the masses, you might notice that most people tend to eat the correct amount of carbohydrate at a meal when they eat bread. Most people tend to eat two slices at breakfast or lunch, which is sufficient carbohydrate to fuel their activity until the next meal time. This cannot be said for other carbohydrate sources. When people eat pasta or rice, their typical portion is equivalent, in terms of carbohydrate and calories, is four to eight slices of bread.

This isn't a pro-bread article. It is misleading to suggest that bread is an incredibly important staple in our diet; it's not. According to one survey, white bread provided 9-18pc of the fibre in Irish diets, and 11-12pc of the minerals iron and calcium. In my professional opinion, this doesn't highlight how nutrient-rich white bread is, but rather how poor the typical Irish diet has become.

If you're looking to boost these nutrients in your diet, pulses, nuts and dairy are a better choice than white bread. In fact, even if you are eating healthier, higher-fibre brown bread, you can give it up completely without compromising your overall nutrition.

However, it remains true that you can eat bread and still be healthy. It is, after all, a very versatile and handy carbohydrate source. What would be advisable, when choosing to eat bread, is to focus on the quality of the bread eaten.

Fibre-wise there may not always much difference between the white and the wholemeal bread that you buy. Sometimes the difference is a mere half a gram of fibre per serving. As most of us require 25g to 35g of fibre each day, this is a drop in the ocean. Therefore, when buying bread, look at the back of the pack. Choose a bread that has greater than 6g of fibre per 100g. Usually this bread is brown and seeded.

If making bread at home, include the whole of the grain by baking with wholemeal flour as well as bran and germ. By making this small change, the three layers of the grain are within your bread, optimising its macronutrient and micronutrient content. It also helps to enhance the taste of your bread. If there is a reason why you avoid bread, there may be ways around your issue.

For instance, if you find that wheat makes you feel bloated, why not try spelt bread? If you are following a gluten-free diet, why not try porridge bread? If you find bread gives you indigestion, why not try a yeast-free bread such as a pita bread? These suggestions may help get around your issues while keeping bread within your diet.

As for what to eat with your bread, focus on balancing your meal. A balanced meal contains high-fibre carbohydrate as well as a fat, protein and fibre. This lowers the glycaemic load of the meal, ensuring that the energy provided is delivered to the body in a slower, more manageable way.

So, forget the fads. Enjoy your spuds and bread and eat them as part of a balanced meal.


High-fibre fruit bread


200g no-added-sugar muesli

6 tbsp linseeds & 2 tbsp chia seeds

50g walnuts & 2 tsp mixed spice

2 tsp baking powder

3 eggs & 3 ripe bananas


1. Preheat the oven to 180°C

2. In a bowl, mix the muesli, linseed, chia seeds, walnuts, mixed spice and baking powder

3. Add 3 ripe bananas and 3 eggs to a blender.

4. Pour the banana and egg mixture in on top of the muesli mixture. Stir together.

5. Bake in a greased bread tin for 50 minutes at 180°C

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