Wouldn’t you agree carbs are highly controversial? Nutritionists tell us that we get half of our calories from carbs. There are claims, however, that carbs cause obesity and type 2 diabetes; so, we should avoid them. And, there are good arguments on both sides.
Empirical studies suggest that, indeed, some people do better with a lower carb intake, while others do just fine eating plenty of carbs.
So, what’s really the deal with carbs?
Getting to Know Carbs
Carbohydrates are molecules that have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It is one of the macronutrients (the other two are proteins and fat).
Dietary carbs can be categorized into three:
- Sugars: Sweet, short-chain carbohydrates found in foods. Examples are glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose.
- Starches: Long chains of glucose molecules, which eventually get broken down into glucose in the digestive system.
- Fiber: Humans cannot digest fiber, although the bacteria in the digestive system can make use of some of them.
The main purpose of carbohydrates is to provide energy. Most carbs get broken down into glucose, or into fat (stored energy) for later use. The main types of dietary carbohydrates are sugars, starches and fiber.
“Whole” vs “Refined” Carbs
Different carbs result in different health effects. And, there are many different type of carbohydrate-containing foods.
Whole carbs are unprocessed carbs, and contain the fiber found naturally in the food (e.g. vegetables, whole fruit, legumes, potatoes, whole grains). Refined carbs, on the other hand, have been processed and had the natural fiber stripped out (e.g. sweetened beverages, fruit juices, pastries, white bread, white pasta, white rice, etc.).
The added sugars are the worst carbohydrates and linked to all sorts of chronic diseases.
On the bright side, whole food sources of carbohydrates are loaded with nutrients and fiber, and don’t cause the same spikes and dips in blood sugar levels.
Low-Carb Diets Are Great For Some People
Over 23 studies have now shown that low-carb diets are much more effective than the standard “low-fat” diet that has been recommended for the past few decades.
These studies show that low-carb diets cause more weight loss and lead to greater improvement in various health markers, including HDL (the “good”) cholesterol, blood triglycerides, blood sugar, blood pressure and others.
However, just because low-carb diets are useful for weight loss and people with certain metabolic problems, they are definitely not the answer for everyone.
“Carbs” Are Not The Cause of Obesity
It is true that restricting carbs can often (at least partly) reverse obesity. But this is not mean that carbs are the cause of obesity in the first place. That is a myth and there is a ton of evidence against it.
While it is true that added sugars and refined carbs are linked to increased obesity, the same is not true of fiber-rich, whole-food sources of carbohydrates.
Humans have been eating carbs for thousands of years. However, the obesity epidemic started around 1980, and the type 2 diabetes epidemic followed soon after. Also, many populations have remained in excellent health while eating high-carb diet, such as Okinawans, Kitavans, and Asian rice eaters.
However, populations that eat a lot of refined carbohydrates and processed foods tend to be sick and unhealthy.
Choosing What Carbs to Eat
As a general rule, carbohydrates that are in their natural, fiber-rich form are healthy, while those that have been stripped of their fiber are not.
If it’s a whole, single ingredient food, then it’s probably a healthy food for most people, no matter what the carbohydrate content is.
With this in mind, it is possible to categorize most carbs as either “good” or “bad” – but keep in mind that these are just general guidelines.
Things are rarely ever black and white in nutrition.
- Vegetables: all of them. It is best to eat a variety of vegetables every day.
- Whole fruits: apples, bananas, strawberries, etc.
- Legumes: lentils, kidney beans, peas, etc.
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, etc.
- Seeds: chia seeds, pumpkin seeds.
- Whole grains: choose grains that are truly whole, as in pure oats, quinoa, brown rice, etc.
- Tubers: potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.
People who are trying to restrict carbohydrates need to be careful with the whole grains, legumes, tubers and high-sugar fruit.
- Sugary drinks: Coke, Pepsi, Vitaminwater, etc. Sugary drinks are some of the unhealthiest things you can put into your body.
- Fruit juices: unfortunately, fruit juices may have similar metabolic effects as sugar-sweetened beverages.
- White bread: these are refined carbohydrates that are low in essential nutrients and bad for metabolic health. This applies to most commercially available breads.
- Pastries, cookies and cakes: these tend to be very high in sugar and refined wheat.
- Ice cream: most types of ice cream are very high in sugar, although there are exceptions.
- Candies and chocolates: If you’re going to eat chocolate, choose quality dark chocolate.
- French fries and potato chips: Whole potatoes are healthy, but french fries and potato chips are not.
These foods may be fine in moderation for some people, but many will do best by avoiding them as much as possible.
Low-carb is great for some, but others function best with plenty of carbs.
The “optimal” carbohydrate intake depends on numerous factors, such as age, gender, metabolic health, physical activity, food culture and personal preference.
If you have a lot of weight to lose, or have health problems like metabolic syndrome and/or type 2 diabetes, then you are probably carbohydrate sensitive.
In this case, reducing carbohydrate intake can have clear, life-saving benefits.
On the other hand, if you’re just a healthy person trying to stay healthy, then there is probably no reason for you to avoid “carbs” – just stick to whole, single ingredient foods as much as possible.
If you are naturally lean and/or highly physically active, then you may even function much better with plenty of carbs in your diet.
Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all hack in nutrition.