Spoiler Alert: Carbs aren’t the enemy.
We're not about to tell you to load up on Cola and Hostess, but we might just change the way you think when you hear the word "Carbs".
We’re here to help you make sense of the conflicting information and diet recommendations that litter the internet. It’s tough to understand the advice between medical websites, health studies, and your favorite fitness influencers. Let us help make it clearer.
What Are Carbohydrates?
When you think carbs you probably think bread, pasta, and other heavy and delicious foods. It’s true that those are examples of carbs, but carbs are more than that. At the very base Carbs, or Carbohydrates, are biomolecules, and they play several critical roles. Carbohydrates are structural components that transport energy within a living organism.
We could delve deeper into the intricacies of what defines a carbohydrate- But we’ll save that for another time. The important things to remember for now are (1):
- Carbs are energy,
- Carbs are a major food source.
- There are 2 major types of Carbs: Complex and Simple.
Why Eat Less Carbs?
Have you heard of the multiple diets based on limiting or cutting out carbs altogether? These diets promise that by not eating carbs your body will in turn burn fat and will help you lose a ton of weight (fast). This is appealing to many, and a reason why keto diets and similar plans are trending.
It should be acknowledged that eating fewer carbs has been shown to benefit health and aid in weight loss goals in some studies, but there are many factors that go into a healthy diet. One study showed in terms of satiety in diet, a carb controlled diet was more effective than a low fat (2). Another study showed the same in an all-women group of participants (3).
While many studies show a reduction in weight associated with eating less carbohydrates, many don't control for overall consumption. When people diet, and cut out carbohydrates, they tend to eat less food overall. Most people that are cutting out carbs weren’t eating the “good” carbs to begin with. When cutting out a food group, like carbs, in particular, you are cutting out even the “right” ones. Many people enjoy healthy lives on a carb-heavy diet, but do so without the added sugars and "junk" carbs. Having a diet full of whole grains as a staple is ideal to consume enough calories and healthy carbohydrates.
The Argument for Carbs
Like anything in life, cutting something out cold turkey (and forever) is simply unsustainable. While we acknowledge the evidence for some benefits in carb controlled diets, we want to highlight the easier (and more tasty) option to keep carbs in the lineup.
One study here encourages the use of carbs (especially whole grains) for disease prevention (4,5). Additionally, carbohydratess have been proven to increase insulin sensitivity as well, which helps in reducing blood sugar and leading to better weight management (6). According to these studies, it’s actually strongly suggested to make healthy carbs the core of your diet to maintain a healthy weight and combat serious disease. That sounds like a win to me!
Cutting out carbs would mean cutting out the world's (and our body's) main source of energy. Your brain prefers to run on carbohydrates, so cutting them out would result in feeling sluggish and tired. Not to mention you would lower dietary fiber. Carbs are everywhere and you would need an iron will to repeatedly turn down carb-based foods.
Remember, not all carbs are created equal and so many of them can be really good for you if you know what to look for!
(You should know that just because a food is labeled as having "whole wheat" doesn't mean it's healthy. Look for foods labeled as "whole grain" to get unrefined grains with all the nutrition!)
5 Tips for Eating Carbs
Instead of falling victim to the fad diets that preach zero carbs, keep them in your diet but be mindful of the details. Here are 5 tips to keep in mind when you eat carbs.
TIP #1: Eat the “right” carbs
Carbs get a bad wrap, but there are carbs that will be better for your health and weight loss goals. Generally, the more natural and whole the carbohydrate the better. The best way to get your carbs are in whole grains (like wheat, oats, barley, quinoa, rice, etc), fiber-rich fruits and vegetables (7). One study showed an inverse relationship between eating whole grains and BMI, this further basks up the national diet recommendations that call for eating whole grains as part of your daily dietary intake (8).
Based on expert recommendations, we suggest eating plenty of veggies and fruits each day. As you might have guessed, the “wrong” carbs (or carb sources you should limit) include processed, sugary foods. Don’t forget: Moderation is key!
TIP #2 Limit added sugars
Added sugars are everywhere. A 2016 study showed that being hyper-focused on limiting sugar is not a successful way to combat disease or aid in weight loss (9). With that said, it is helpful when coupled with overall nutrition and exercise practices.
We recommend being mindful of added sugars, but not being too concerned with this. Instead, focus on a balanced diet with all food groups.
Bonus: Turn to the nutrition label to determine how much of your food choice is made of added sugars.
TIP #3: Be clear on your goals
Your diet should reflect your health and fitness goals. Everyone is different, and while there are blanket recommendations for daily intake, your needs will vary.
If you’re looking to lose weight, you can keep carbs on board but limit the sources to fruits and veggies. If your goal is to control diabetes or cholesterol levels, you should consult a doctor before making changes but may benefit from limiting some carbs.
TIP #4: Portion size
Portion size is a simple way to keep yourself on track with weight loss goals. It’s easy to overeat and ignore the natural cues your body gives you that you’re hungry or full.
A study found that people can eat a satisfying amount of food if they eat larger portions of low-energy-dense foods while limiting their portions of foods high in energy density (10). This basically means portion control and a balanced diet can be huge in reaching goals.
TIP #5: Don’t deprive yourself
Our final tip is: Don’t deprive yourself of the foods you want or love.
A study of low and high carbohydrate diets showed weight loss was the same, regardless of macronutrients (11). Take it from the institute of medicine’s dietary reference intake: Adults should get 45%-65% of their calories from carbs, 20-35% from fat, and 10-35% from protein (12).
We can’t forget to acknowledge the willpower it takes to stick to a restrictive diet.
A 1996 study by Dr. Roy Baumeister pulled a bait and switch where participants were shown chocolate but only some were given the chocolate, while others were left with a radish to eat while they had chocolate in their view (13). The study examined the willpower participants had to complete a puzzle after they were given the chocolate or the radish. Interestingly enough, those who were given their chocolate instead of a radish were able to persevere with a puzzle for double the crime of those who ate a radish.
Living a restrictive diet that requires willpower, again and again, is not realistic, and has been proven in this study, and over 1,000 additional studies thereafter. Registered dietitian nutritionist Taryn Schubert says, “Eventually you’ll give in to your craving for that food and probably overindulge because of Last Supper Mentality (‘after this time, I’ll never eat this again’) (14).”
Carbs are everywhere, and it’s futile to avoid them altogether, but when you’re informed and educated you can make healthy choices when it comes to your dietary habits. Choosing whole, raw grains as your carbs of choice and complementing that with fruits and vegetables will ensure that you protect yourself from high risk of disease. Limiting refined sugars and grains will also keep your health in check. Carbs are just one type of food though! Remember to balance your diet with healthy fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals as well as exercising regularly!
With these things in mind, you can approach food with confidence and take control of your health!