Monday 14 October 2019

Pasta lovers rejoice - Carbohydrates help you live longer, scientists find

Pasta lovers rejoice - new research suggests that eating carbohydrates helps you live longer. But can you do it without piling on the pounds? Joel Snape shows you how

Pasta - back in favour
Pasta - back in favour
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Carbohydrates are back on the menu

Good news, everyone - carbs are back on the menu. Or at least, they are if you're the sort of person who bases their week-to-week eating decisions on what's being said in The Lancet. Researchers conducted a 25-year study on 15,400 people and found that the ones eating low-carb diets - that are high in animal fats - died, on average, four years earlier, than those keeping their intake more moderate.

In the days since it was published, the Atkins community has held a press conference announcing that they were wrong all along, Gwyneth Paltrow has publicly apologised, and... OK, haha, I'm joking.

Obviously, what's actually happened is that everyone's retreated to their firmly entrenched positions and dug in even harder, taking potshots at the researchers' methodology and yelling: 'correlation doesn't imply causation!' out across no man's land. The low-carbers weren't really that low, they point out, considering that anything below 40pc of daily calories made it into the test group, while serious keto-heads - keto is the umbrella term for low-carbing - go as low as 5pc (strict carnivores, of course, keep it at zero).

And so it goes on. Observational studies, they note, can't account for everything, and other factors that might go hand-in-hand with eating high-carb - like living in an idyllic Mediterranean village, or having regular afternoon naps - are likely to play a role. Aren't the researchers forgetting about all the not-terribly-well-established benefits of going ultra low-carb, like looking great in your holiday photos or feeling more energetic? Even if you shave a couple of years off your dotage, might that not be worth it? After all, we'll probably all be living in a robot-run, water-depleted hellscape by then anyway.

The annoying truth is that it's impossible to say what the optimal approach for everyone is; there are so many confounding factors and contributing genetic quirks involved, that what works for one person might be disastrous for someone else. But, based on what we currently know, what we can say is that there's a way to rethink your relationship with carbs that's likely to leave you happier, healthier, and almost certainly a bit leaner.

Step 1: Think unrefined

One thing that the keto crowd's certainly got right is that we're ill-adapted for modern life - not necessarily in our ability to live on Pop-Tarts and miniature Battenburg slices, but in our ability to overeat them. Highly refined carbs and sugars, sometimes called the 'hyperpalatable' kind by researchers, are startlingly easy to overeat, as you'll know if you've ever found yourself staring at the remnants of a biscuit barrel, wondering what happened. They have no effect on your fullness levels or the hormones that regulate appetite and energy intake.

So, keep them out of your house and workspace and replace them in your diet with unrefined, whole foods - they're much harder to overindulge in, and far more filling.

Step 2: Eat more carbs if you're active

If you're mostly sedentary throughout the day, a mildly carb-controlled approach to diet is probably the best approach - eat more nutrient-dense, high-satiety foods like cruciferous vegetables, whole fruit (no juice) and a variety of root vegetables.

This approach is pretty self-regulating - if you're steering clear of the refined carbs that mess up your body's signals, your own hunger levels are the best gauge of whether you should eat more or not. If you're a bit more active, you'll find it tough to get all the energy you need from vegetables alone, and at this point, a bit of white rice or quinoa will be your friend.

Step 3: Time your carbs around activity

Heading out for a run in the morning, or wrangling with a set of Ikea bookshelves for an hour? You don't just deserve a rich tea biscuit or two - you'll be metabolically better-equipped to deal with them.

You shouldn't be using workouts as an excuse to binge on cake, but timing your more carb-heavy meals around intense activity means they'll go towards glycogen replacement, rather than straight to your body's fat stores. In layman's terms: you'll burn off the energy they provide.

Step 4: Think weekly or daily, not just about meals

This point goes in tandem with the above, but tackles it from a different angle: there's really no need to worry about hitting the same ratios of each macronutrient - protein, carbs and fat - at every meal. If you know you're going for a burger and chips after work, keep it carb-light in the morning - a spinach-and-tomato omelette's just the ticket. Heading to the Saratoga Potato Chip festival at the weekend? Great, just cut down for the rest of the week.

Step 5: Test and assess

Genetics, epigenetics, your current bodyfat levels and the amount and type of activity you do all have a bearing on your sensitivity to carbs, so it's wildly unlikely that any one-size-fits-all plan's going to be exactly right for you. The best way to get a handle on what works is to keep track, and tweak some variables.

There are more and less extreme ways to do this: at one end, you could count every gram of carbs you eat for a week, while at the other you could just scribble down vaguely what you've been eating and cut out a jacket potato or two. Does one option leave you feeling healthier and more energised? Nudge it a bit further in that direction, and see what happens.

Step 6: Don't give up

It's fashionable, when a new study comes out reversing whatever the current orthodoxy is, to conclude that nobody really knows what they're talking about, so busting out the custard creams must be the best option, because at least they taste nice. However, it's best to resist this temptation: vegetables, activity, proper hydration and protein always work, even if the rest is negotiable. If that's what you stick with most of the time - it's perfectly fine to have a chip butty occasionally.

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