Carbs are not the enemy - why you should not cut them out

By Amber Charles-Alexis, MSPH, RDN

August 2, 2021


If there is one macronutrient that has gotten a bad rap in recent times, it's definitely carbohydrates. Before you ditch them for good, this blog explains their benefits, potential downsides, and how you can fit carbs into your health plan.


Carbs | Benefits | Potential downsides | How to make them fit | Takeaway



What are carbs?

Carbohydrates - loosely called "carbs" - are one of the three macronutrients, those essential nutrients needed in larger amounts for good health. The other two are dietary fats and proteins.


The term "carbs" is an umbrella term that encompasses starches, dietary fiber, and simple sugars.


Carbs are found in:

  • Grains/starchy foods - bread, pasta, rice, cereal

  • Legumes (peas/beans) - lentils, black eye peas, kidney beans

  • Dairy and dairy products - milk, cheese, yogurt

  • Fruits - pineapple, pears, mangoes, berries

  • Non-starchy vegetables - in small amounts - carrots, broccoli, tomato etc.

Benefits

Despite the massive fear around eating carbs, this nutrient offers many benefits.


Main source of energy

Carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy - specifically your brain, liver, and kidneys (1).


Yes, your body can adapt to use ketones, but only when carbs are not available.


Furthermore, it is suggested that your body uses fat most efficiently in the presence of adequate carbs (aka the Kreb's cycle) (2).

Dietary fiber and prebiotics

Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not digested by the body, but is linked to many positive health outcomes, including reduced risk for heart disease, improved gut health, blood sugar control and weight management (3).


Some types of fiber are called prebiotics - a type of fiber known to support the growth of "good'' bacteria in your gut (3).


Only carbohydrate foods provide dietary fiber and prebiotics, so by cutting them out, you run the risk of massively reducing these in your diet.


Potential downsides

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs)

Excess intake of carbs has been linked to excess body fat and the development of lifestyle/chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol (4).


However, studies have shown that the excess consumption of refined carbs and processed foods are responsible - and not just carbs themselves (4, 5).


This leads me into the next point...


Carbs aren't created equal

Although I am an advocate for #allfoodsfit, I cannot deny that all carbs are not created equal.


That's why there are "fun" foods vs. nutritious foods (I'm still against describing foods as "good" or "bad" foods).


A diet high in refined wheat, sugar and processed foods will not yield the same health outcomes as a diet rich in complex carbs (4). Basically.

How to make carbs fit into your health plan

Now we understand - the quality of carbs matters more than the quantity consumed.


Complex carbs - whole grains, peas/beans, fruits and non-starchy vegetables - are associated with a reduced risk for NCDs which is a major plus in my books (4).


Furthermore, a study in 811 overweight adults showed that being in a calorie deficit mattered more than the percent of calories coming from carbs, fats and proteins (6).


Here are some ways you can make carbs fit into your health plan:

  • Choose whole grains more often - opt for complex carbs more often for more satiety, weight management and essential nutrients. Some swaps might be ground provision in place of white potatoes or brown rice instead of white rice or having peas/beans more often.

  • Pair carbs with protein and fats - whether you're having a whole grain carbs at your meal, pair carbs with protein and healthy fat like avocado to stay full longer and balance blood sugars. This tip is especially important if you have refined grains more often. This applies to fruits and snacks as well (banana + nut butter...yum).

  • Have at least one veggie-loaded meal - yes, it's ideal to have vegetables throughout the day, but this may not always be possible...and it's okay if you're not a salad person...aim for at least one veggie loaded meal per day.

  • Eat mindfully - if you feel out of control around carbs, it's likely because you've been avoiding them or over-restricting. Allow yourself to eat a blend of nutritious and fun carbs while paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues.

Takeaway

Carbs have gotten a bad rap and are at the scrutiny of many fad diets, however, it is a macronutrient with health benefits.


Before you cut carbs out form your diet (for another time), think about ways to increase the quality of carbs you consume without obsessing over the quantity.


Eat mindfully and enjoy each part of your health journey - whether you are pursuing weight loss, or learning how to balance your blood sugars and hormones (which I can help you with by the way).


#carbsarenottheenemy

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The information provided in this blog is for general knowledge and is not intended to diagnose, cure or treat your medical condition. This information does not replace your need for personalized medical and nutritional expertise and intervention.


References:

  1. Carbohydrates as a source of energy - PubMed (nih.gov)

  2. Hepatic glucose and lipid metabolism - PubMed (nih.gov)

  3. Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits (nih.gov)

  4. Are excess carbohydrates the main link to diabetes & its complications in Asians? (nih.gov)

  5. Does high-carbohydrate intake lead to increased risk of obesity? A systematic review and meta-analysis (nih.gov)

  6. Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates - PubMed (nih.gov)

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