The Truth About Carbohydrates

There are so many misconceptions and fallacies when it comes to the field of nutrition. It is no surprise why so many people are confused about what they should and should not eat. Part of the reason for this has been the condemning of carbohydrates. Let’s look at the truth about carbohydrates.

It is often claimed that “carbs make you fat” and that they will spike your blood sugar or cause diabetes so you should stay away from them. Wrong!

The Truth About Carbohydrates – Not All Carbs Are Created Equal

First, let’s get something straight. Not all carbs are created equal. Eating a piece of candy, which contains sugar, will not have the same effect on the body as eating a whole piece of fruit, which also contains sugar.

The reality is that whole sources of carbohydrates, such as starches and fruits, contain other beneficial nutrients besides just sugar. Not that sugar is necessarily bad for you, it is an essential nutrient after all, but the best sources of carbohydrates will always be the whole sources.

The Truth About Carbohydrates – The Problem with Animal Protein & Fat

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy that fuels our everyday activities. When people cut back on carbs, they have to increase their fat and protein intake in order to compensate for the caloric deficit. Low-carb diets are very popular these days. They are one of the main reasons why carbohydrates have been stigmatized.

While fat and protein are certainly essential and should be part of a healthy diet, they can cause many health issues when overeaten, which is much easier to do than with whole carbohydrates. One of the main issues with animal products is that they often contain too much saturated fat (Clarke, et al., 1997) and cholesterol (Weggemans, et al., 2001), which have been shown to increase LDL-cholesterol.

Animal-based foods have also been shown to increase the risk of certain types of cancer.  Red and processed meats which have been classified as colorectal carcinogens according to the World Health Organization (2015).

It should be no surprise to anyone as to why the largest manage care organization in the United States, Kaiser Permanente, stated that physicians should recommend a plant-based diet to all of their patients in order to help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity (Tuso, et al., 2013).

The Truth About Carbohydrates – A Word on Fiber

One way whole carbohydrates are superior to refined carbohydrates is because starches and fruits contain fiber. While dietary fiber is considered to be a carbohydrate itself, it does not provide any calories, such as simple and complex carbohydrates.

However, dietary fiber stimulates satiation, aids digestion, lowers cholesterol levels, and improves blood glucose control (MedlinePlus, 2016). This is why it is much easier to over consume on refined carbohydrates as they do not contain as much fiber as their whole counterparts.

Dietary fiber has also been shown to reduce postprandial glucose response. Fiber has a positive influence on certain blood lipids. It can improve insulin sensitivity, influence the modulation of the secretion of gut hormones, and have effects on certain metabolic and inflammatory markers that are related to metabolic syndrome (Weicker, et al., 2008).

Simple carbs get a bad rap because foods with refined sugar typically fall into this The Truth About Carbohydratescategory. Think: candy, soda, chips, and syrup.

“Simple carbohydrates have a high glycemic index and can raise blood sugar levels,” Zied says. But not all of them are necessarily bad for you. Healthy examples of unrefined simple carbs include dairy and fruit.

On the other hand, “complex carbohydrates are absorbed and digested by the body more slowly,” Zied says. “They have a lower glycemic index than simple carbohydrates and tend not to raise blood sugar levels the way simple carbohydrates do.” Complex carbs include grains such as bulgur, quinoa, and some pastas and starchy vegetables such as acorn squash, corn, and pumpkin.

Focusing on complex carbs that are high in fiber (meaning they have 5 grams or more per serving) will keep you satisfied longer—without having to consume too many calories.

Fiber is one of the things that helps slow down the blood sugar spike. Without fiber it’s more likely that you’ll get hungrier again sooner, and you’re not going to feel as satisfied. And that’s what gives carbs a bad name.

For instance, think about how much easier it might be to overeat cheese pizza versus butternut squash stuffed with radicchio and onion.

The Truth About Carbohydrates – Is Fruit a Problem?

Well, what about fruit? It does not contain as much fiber as starches and contains more simple sugars, like fructose. That cannot be good for you, right?

Fruit is a whole food and comes with a ton of healthy nutrients, such as polyphenols. These polyphenols in fruit have shown to improve glycemic profile. This is true even if the total amount of carbohydrates consumed greater. (Ritta, et al., 2012).

So what about fructose? Those who speak out against the negative effects of fructose are correct.  Fructose has been associated with the formation of triglycerides and lipogenesis (Bray, 2007).  It can also induce hepatic fibrosis (Kohli, et al., 2010). However, this is only the half-truth.

What many of these critics do not consider is the source of the fructose. If they did, they would realize that these negative effects arise from the consumption of industrialized fructose, such as high fructose corn syrup, and not fructose from whole fruit (Petta, et al., 2013).

The Truth About Carbohydrates – Carbs = Energy

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. The benefits of eating foods in their whole state does not even compare to eating refined and processed foods. Whole carbohydrates, like starches and fruits, come with many other beneficial nutrients such as fiber, and polyphenols, which help satiate people and control their blood sugar. Coffee creamers even have carbs.

Carbohydrates also help provide us with energy to execute our daily activities. A vast number of people who transition to a whole foods, plant based diet and ditch the animal products.  They experience so many health benefits from weight loss, increase energy, and even reversal of disease.

Hippocrates had it right when he said, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The food we eat has a very strong influence on our health. Therefore, we need to sincerely rethink what we are eating and determine if it is either “medicine” or “poison.”

The Truth About Carbohydrates – Low Carb Diets Aren’t the Only Way to Lose Weight

Listen up, Atkins devotees: Though opting for a low-carb, high-protein diet might help you quickly shed a few pounds, in the long run, dietitians say it’s almost always unsustainable.

We need carbohydrates. Our bodies rely on glucose to function optimally—especially our brain. If you don’t get enough carbs, eventually your body will go into a state of ketosis—meaning it’s burning fat, instead of glucose, for fuel.

There are other, less desirable possible side effects of keeping your body in a state of ketosis: chronic bad breath and constipation.

Instead of going cold turkey with carbs, focus on smaller portion sizes and chowing down on high-fiber, complex carbohydrates that will help you to feel fuller, longer.

The Truth About Carbohydrates – Conclusion

Like so much of nutrition, there’s a Goldilocks approach to carbs: Not too much, not too little, and just the right kind can yield great results. With the right balance, you’ll have energy for your fave activities—and none of the downsides.