Feeling fearful of carbohydrates -aka carbs- lately? You aren't the only one. Diet culture has been vilifying carbs for decades by associating them with weight gain and diabetes. Trendy low-carb diets like the keto diet claim to melt away body fat, improve energy efficiency, and regulate blood sugar. But do carbs really deserve the cold shoulder? And are ultra-restrictive low-carb diets all they’re hyped up to be? It’s time to set the record straight once and for all.
Carbs: What Are They?
First, what are carbs? Carbs are one of three macronutrients, the other two being protein and fat. When consumed, digestible carbs are broken down into glucose (sugar). This sugar enters the bloodstream, where insulin allows it into cells to be stored or used as energy.
Insulin is a hormone released by the body when carbs are ingested. Think of insulin as a key that unlocks cells in the bloodstream to allow blood sugar to enter. When the body isn’t releasing insulin or insulin isn’t working correctly, blood sugar remains elevated because it cannot be taken in by the cells. The types of carbs consumed through diet can impact how well the body utilizes insulin to control blood sugar.
Carbs are commonly associated with bread and pasta, but it’s important to remember that they’re also in other nutrient-dense plant-based foods like beans, fruits, and vegetables. With that in mind, not all carbs are created equal. Some carbs contain single, double, or multiple sugar molecules and can be classified as “simple” or “complex”.
Simple carbs contain single and double sugar molecules that can be quickly and easily broken down to be utilized by the body as energy. Because they are rapidly digested, eating simple carbs can cause a spike in blood sugar levels. Over time, this can result in negative health outcomes. Simple carbs come in the form of added sugar in sodas, pastries, and candy, but also occur naturally in fruit, vegetables, and milk.
This doesn’t mean we need to avoid fruits and vegetables! These foods are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals that inhibit rapid increases in blood sugar. They end up acting more like complex carbs in terms of blood sugar control.
Complex carbs contain three or more sugar molecules and are much more difficult for the body to break down. For this reason, they’re digested slowly and cause a gradual and steady increase in blood sugar. Complex carbs tend to be rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Sources include whole grains, beans, and starchy vegetables like potatoes.
Five Reasons Carbs Are Not The Enemy!
It’s recommended that 45-65% of your daily caloric intake comes from carbs. To put this into perspective, a person following a 2,000-calorie diet would consume 900-1,300 calories from carbs alone. Break this down further, and you’re looking at 225-325 grams of carbs per day. Before you let those numbers frighten you, let’s explore 5 reasons carbs are not the enemy.
#1. Carbs are the Body's Preferred Source of Energy
We’ve already established that carbs are broken down into sugar and used by the body as energy. A diet that includes all three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) will always utilize carbs first for energy. Carbs provide energy for the brain, heart, muscles, and central nervous system to function optimally. Energy from carbs can be used for immediate tasks or converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles for later use.
During exercise, carbs provide quick bursts of energy for explosive movements and muscle contractions. Endurance exercise may tap into fat stores when long-lasting energy is needed. Lastly, protein can be broken down to provide energy when other sources aren’t available, but this isn’t ideal.
The brain uses energy from carbs to produce serotonin, which plays a role in mood, sleep, and cognition. Without carbs, you may feel grouchy and have focus and memory problems.
So, if carbs are the body's preferred source of energy, then why is the Keto diet so mainstream? The goal of very low-carb or “no-carb” diets like the Keto diet is for the body to achieve a state of ketosis. Ketosis occurs when your body uses fat for energy instead of carbs. However, these diets are extremely restrictive and difficult for most to maintain. For any diet to be truly effective, it needs to be sustainable.
Next time you’re feeling sluggish or having difficulty focusing, be sure you’re eating an adequate amount of carbs to keep your body and mind fueled. Oats, chickpeas, quinoa, and sweet potatoes are excellent sources of complex carbs that provide the body with efficient fuel.
#2. Carbs Aid in Digestion
Not all carbs are broken down into sugar to be used for energy. Fiber is a nondigestible type of carb that benefits the body in many ways. There are two kinds of fiber, insoluble and soluble. Both work together to relieve constipation and stimulate regular bowel movements.
- Insoluble fiber promotes digestive health by bulking up stool. Because it’s not broken down, insoluble fiber moves through the bowels collecting waste as it goes. Here's a list of insoluble fiber foods to consider.
- Soluble fiber absorbs water and forms a gel-like consistency. This helps waste pass smoothly through the bowels. Soluble fiber also keeps you feeling fuller longer, which supports weight management.
It's recommended to eat about 25-35 grams of fiber per day. Increase your fiber intake gradually, and drink plenty of water to avoid uncomfortable side effects like bloating and cramping. Carbs rich in fiber include lentils, peas, oat bran, wheat bran, flaxseeds, chia seeds, kale, pears, and apples.
Here are some simple ways to increase your fiber intake to support healthy digestion:
- Leave the skin on fruits and vegetables (pears, apples, potatoes)
- Add berries, seeds, nuts, and beans to salads
- Replace white bread, pasta, and rice with whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta, and brown rice
- Add seeds and berries to oats or whole grain cereals
- Add beans, quinoa, and brown or wild rice to soups and stews
#3. Carbs Help to Manage Blood Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver. The liver makes all the cholesterol needed by the body, which is why it’s recommended to limit the amount of cholesterol ingested through the diet. There are two types of cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). When LDL cholesterol is high plaque can build up in the arteries and lead to health complications like stroke or heart attack.
Usually, when it comes to lowering blood cholesterol, the focus is on reducing intakes of foods high in saturated fats. It’s not as well known that eating complex carbs helps lower cholesterol in the blood. More specifically, complex carbs rich in fiber benefit heart health by lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol.
When it comes to carbs and managing blood cholesterol, it’s all about the quality of carbs being consumed. Choosing high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans results in better outcomes for cholesterol levels. The fiber in these foods reduces cholesterol by trapping it as it moves through the intestines and excreting it from the body through stool. This keeps the cholesterol from being absorbed into the bloodstream resulting in elevated blood cholesterol levels.
It's important to note that not all carb-rich foods reduce cholesterol. Foods like doughnuts and cookies tend to be higher in saturated fat. Eating too many foods high in saturated fat is a risk factor for high blood cholesterol and heart disease.
#4. Carbs Help Control Blood Sugar
Carbs have a bad reputation when it comes to blood sugar control. Many people wanting to manage their blood sugar have diabetes or are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, it’s a common myth that one must cut out carbs to reduce blood sugar or treat diabetes. But cutting out carbs isn’t the answer. What’s more important when it comes to controlling blood sugar is the types of carb foods being consumed.
Sure, foods with high amounts of added sugar like soda, juice, packaged cookies, and pastries, will cause your blood sugar to rise rapidly. When these foods are eaten regularly it becomes more difficult for the body to respond appropriately to maintain healthy blood sugar. Over time, a diet high in added sugar can increase the risks of developing diabetes.
On the other hand, complex carbs rich in fiber support healthy blood sugar levels. Fiber slows digestion, which results in a slow and steady increase in blood sugar rather than a quick spike. Choosing carb foods packed with fiber can lead to improved blood sugar control over time. Carb sources that control blood sugar include beans, oats, whole-grain bread, quinoa, berries, broccoli, and green beans.
#5. Carbs Aid in Weight Management
Carbs are commonly associated with weight gain, causing many people to turn to restrictive low-carb diets. You likely know someone who rants and raves about the weight they’ve lost following a low-carb diet. It’s common to lose weight quickly when starting this type of diet. Inevitably, drastically reducing carbs in your diet will result in lower caloric intake. Weight loss experienced during this time has more to do with cutting calories than reducing carbs specifically. However, most people can’t sustain such a restrictive eating pattern and will likely gain the weight back within the next few years. If a diet must continuously be restarted, is it really working?
Of course, a diet heavy in carb rich foods like cupcakes, cinnamon rolls, and chips may result in weight gain. These low-fiber foods are usually high in added sugar and saturated fat. Too much added sugar over time may contribute to insulin resistance, which is linked to weight gain. Insulin resistance is when the body no longer utilizes insulin effectively to let blood sugar into cells. Blood sugar remains elevated in the blood for longer. Additionally, fat is very calorically dense, containing 9 calories per gram. Carbs are much less calorically dense at only 4 calories per gram. Regularly eating high-fat foods with added sugar is associated with insulin resistance and weight gain.
So how can eating carbs aid in weight management? Nutrient-dense carb foods are packed with fiber that helps keep you feeling fuller for longer- think quinoa, oats, apples, pears, and sweet potatoes. Since fiber can’t be digested, it moves more slowly through the stomach. This may aid in portion control and results in consuming fewer calories throughout the day.
Additionally, quality sources of carbs cause slow, gradual increases in blood sugar rather than quick increases. Insulin can respond efficiently and effectively to allow blood sugar to enter the cells to be used for energy. This helps to manage blood sugar levels and reduces the risk of developing insulin resistance. Effectively managing blood sugar plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy weight.
Carbs are a key element of a complete diet. They are not the enemy and should not be avoided for many reasons. However, to gain the benefits carbs have to offer, it’s important to choose quality carb foods packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Complex carbs are usually full of nutrients and are digested slowly, while simple carbs tend to have more added sugar and are digested quickly. Carbs provide the body with energy that fuels the muscles and brain. Fiber-rich carb sources like oats, whole grain bread, fruits and vegetables with the skin, and beans aid digestion by relieving constipation and promoting regular bowel movements. These quality carb choices also lower LDL cholesterol and improve HDL cholesterol, which supports heart health.
Although carbs are typically known for contributing to high uncontrolled blood sugar, choosing complex carbs results in slow, steady increases in blood sugar that allow for improved control over time and reduced risk of developing insulin resistance. The fiber found in whole grain cereals, lentils, chickpeas, and chia seeds makes you feel fuller for longer, which may support maintaining a healthy weight.
Next time you think about ditching carbs, consider choosing quality, nutrient-dense carbs that offer numerous benefits to the body. You may just find that carbs are your friend and not your enemy.