Carbs: To Eat, or Not to Eat?

Image source: pixabay.com
Image source: pixabay.com
Image source: pixabay.com

This has been the most controversial topic in the field of nutrition. Carbs has been accused of causing weight gain, heart disease, and many other health problems.

But the truth is, not all carbs are the same. There are bad ones, and good ones, too. Whole carbs are healthy, while refined carbs are almost always harmful. Refined carbs can be found in junk foods or processed foods.

Carbs are not meant to make you fat.

There are many sources which blame carbs for obesity. These claims are buttressed by the assumption that carbs raise insulin levels, thereby making carbs the primary and ultimate cause of obesity.

The truth is, scientific evidence overwhelmingly rejects this hypothesis.

A look at history and culture will tell us that high-carb diets are not necessarily correlated with obesity. Massas, Kitavans, Tarahumara Indians, pre-industrialized Thai, Taiwanese and the rest of Asia during the 20th century are examples of groups which thrived on high-carb diets, but are generally healthy and lean-bodied populations.

Early humans eat carbs all the time.

Back when cooking and farming was not a thing, our early ancestors fed mainly on carb-rich foods like root vegetables, legumes, and grains. Learning to cook was a game-changer, as cooked meat provided increased protein, fat, and calories.

Evidence also suggests that our early ancestors are carbs lovers. This is supported by emerging biological evidence that shows early humans began developing extra copies of the amylase gene, which helps produce the enzymes you need to digest starchy carbs.

By analyzing bone DNA, researchers can see that early humans in Europe had developed extra copies of the amylase gene long before they started farming.

That’s why people today can have up to 18 amylase gene copies, indicating that we have evolved to be able to digest starches more efficiently.

Also consider that every single cell in your body runs on glucose, which is a carbohydrate sugar.

Even the most fat-adapted brain requires, at the very least, 20% of its energy from carbs (10).

Gluten sensitivity affects few people.

People with  gluten sensitivity can experience symptoms such as “foggy mind”, depression, ADHD-like behavior, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, bone or joint pain, and chronic fatigue when they have gluten in their diet, but other symptoms are also possible. While these are common symptoms of celiac disease, these individuals do not test positive for celiac disease or for a wheat allergy.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and other grains. By cutting carbs from your diet, you automatically cut out gluten, too. Gluten-free diets are good for people with celiac disease and may also benefit people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (wheat intolerance).

But must we all avoid gluten? Group all the abovementioned condition together, the scientific literature indicates that between 87–99% of people should have zero problems digesting gluten. What’s more, the weight of the evidence leans towards the 99%.

The latest clinical trial even found that only 3 out of 59 participants with self-reported gluten sensitivity actually reacted to gluten.

Although foods that are naturally gluten-free can be healthy, processed gluten-free foods are not. Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.

In other words, although removing gluten is crucial for some people, the current body of evidence suggests that the majority of people don’t benefit from a gluten-free diet.

Fiber is Important for optimal health.

We always mention that, in nutrition, everything is rarely black and white. But there’s one thing almost all experts agree on: that fiber is good for your health, and that it’s a carbohydrates.

For instance, soluble fiber is known to be good for heart health and weight management. This kind of fiber is thick and sticky. It can be found in legumes, potatoes, and oats. Studies show soluble fiber can help us slow down digestion and increases the time of the body to efficiently absorb nutrients.

In effect, soluble fibers make you feel full longer, and can reduce your appetite. Studies also suggest that this kind of fiber contribute to fat loss around the heart and other significant body organs.

Our gut bacteria rely on carbs for energy.

Yes, you don’t want them out of your gut. Maintaining a healthy community of bacteria in your gut is key to stable health.  It is thought that the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria influences our risk of developing many lifestyle diseases, ranging from physical to psychological.

The “good” bacteria need carbs that they can ferment for energy. As it turns out, soluble fiber appears to be the important gut-nourishing nutrient they feed on.

Legumes are superfoods (in terms of nutrient-to-cost).

Beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, and peanuts are examples of legumes. They are high in carbs, vitamins, and minerals. They are one of the most nutrient-dense foods available to man. And because they are high in carbs, they are excluded from low-carb diets, and paleo diet.

They are also very cheap to produce and package, compared to other high-protein food sources like meat and dairy. This remarkable nutrition-to-cost ratio is why legumes are an important food staple in many developing countries.

Your exercise performance will not improve if you cut carbs.

Many believe that a low-carb diet can outperform a conventional high-carb diet for athletes. Well, that’s now a myth.
A study followed cyclists performing a 100-km trial with intermittent sprints. The researchers compared following a low-carb diet to a high-carb diet, for the week leading up to the trial. Although both groups had similar race times, the high-carb group outperformed the low-carb group’s sprint output on all four occasions.

Image Source: My Sport Science
Image Source: My Sport Science

Solid conclusions cannot be drawn from just one study, but the weight of evidence overwhelmingly supports those results.

Carbs will not make you nuts.

There are sources that claim that carbs cause harmful brain inflammation. The truth is that this is an untested hypothesis.

Studies show that whole grains are high in magnesium and fiber than their refined counterpart. While grains are linked with less inflammation.

In fact, the extensively studied Mediterranean diet, which is rich in whole grains, is strongly associated with slower age-related mental decline and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The latest review on known Alzheimer’s risk factors analyzed 323 previous studies, with not a single mention of grains or gluten.

The world’s Longest-Lived Populations eat plenty of carbs.

The Blue Zones, or the regions where people live measurably longer lives, provide us with unique insights about certain eating patterns.
The island of Okinawa in Japan has the most centenarians (people who live over the age of 100) in the world. And their diet is very high in sweet potatoes, green vegetables and legumes. Prior to 1950, a whopping 69% of their calorie intake came from sweet potatoes alone.

Image Source: AARP
Image Source: AARP

In the Greek island of Ikaria, 1 in every 3 people lives to be 90, and they eat a diet rich in legumes, potatoes and bread.

Several other Blue Zone regions share similar dietary traits, indicating that carbs are not causing problems for these people.

A Word to the Wise

The main message to take away is that whole carb foods can definitely be part of a healthy diet… and enjoying some carbs at Christmas is not blasphemy.

1 “Gluten Sensitivity – Celiac Disease Foundation.” 2015. 29 Feb. 2016 <https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity/>

2 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Zone>

 

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