The minute a beach vacation, a high school reunion or a friend’s wedding pops up on the calendar, we immediately wage war on carbohydrates.
Definitely no potatoes.
But is banishing carbs really the best plan of attack to slim down, tone up and feel your best? Not to mention, where do carbs come into play when it comes to our overall health? And why have they become the scapegoat for our muffin top?
“People love to say things like ‘I am on a low-carb diet’ or ‘I'm not eating carbs right now.’ Typically, they're referring to pasta and bread, but what many don't know is that dairy, fruit and vegetables have naturally occurring carbohydrates!” says Courtney Ferreira, RD, owner of Real Food Court nutrition consulting. “If you are eating broccoli, you are eating carbs.”
So before you ban every carbohydrate from the menu — know the facts.
Carbohydrates are a actually a macronutrient (along with protein and fat) and they play a very vital role to your overall health, productivity and yes, your weight-loss success.
“It’s really important for people to understand that the body’s preferred source of fuel for most everyday activity is carbohydrate. And your brain and red blood cells rely on carbohydrate almost exclusively for fuel,” says Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife Nutrition. “So following a very low-carbohydrate diet can really shortchange your physical and mental performance; you cut down (or out) so many healthy foods … and that limits your intake of many important vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber that are critically important to good health.”
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that 45 to 65 percent of the calories we eat come from carbs. Since it makes up such a large chunk of our diet, it's worth it to school yourself on the myths that are misinforming how you consume this important nutrient.
Fact: Yes … but it would also mean nixing fruits, vegetables and whole grains
Yes, that plate of steamed veggies you ate for lunch contained carbs.
“Carbohydrates vary widely in terms of their nutrient density, so everything from a green bean, which is a good source of fiber, protein [and other vitamins and minerals] to a slice of white bread, which does not offer much other than carbohydrates, is considered a carbohydrate,” says Pegah Jalali, MS, RD, CDN, an NYC-based pediatric dietitian.
Instead of saying, ‘I can't eat that,’ ask, what is a source of carbs that will provide me with more nutrition?
She recommends that people move away from the obsession with banning all carbs and focus on the types of food they’re eating. “If you are eating mostly fruits and vegetables, then it is fine if your diet is high in carbohydrates,” says Jalali. “On the flip side, if your diet is high in carbohydrates, but you are eating mostly processed foods like packaged breads, cookies and chips then that is a completely different diet.”
Ferreira advises her clients to think about the different foods that contain carbohydrates on a spectrum. On one side are the foods you can eat in unlimited quantities — nutrient-dense, fiber-rich and whole-food carb sources like green veggies and fruit. Towards the middle are nutrient-dense, but also carbohydrate-dense, foods such as white potatoes, that should be balanced out with those at the ‘eat as much as you can’ end, she says. On the other end of the spectrum are foods like breads and pasta. "While these still have a place in the diet, they require balancing out in order to create a diet that provides nutrients we need," says Ferreira "I really urge people to start looking at carbs in this new way. Instead of saying, ‘I can't eat that,’ [ask] what is a source of carbs that will provide me with more nutrition?”
“The main reason [carbs get a bad rap] is that when people think ‘carbs’ they think ‘starch’, like white rice, pasta, potatoes or white bread,” says Bowerman. “While many refined carbs don’t offer up much nutritionally, there are lots of ‘good carbs’ — healthy foods that provide carbohydrates your body absolutely needs every day to function properly.”
In actuality there are three types of carbohydrates: fiber, sugar and starch. Where things get confusing is when we look at specific foods, which can contain different types of carbohydrates. They can either be labeled simple or complex based on their chemical makeup. Complex carbs “contain a complex chain of sugars as well as some fiber, protein and/or healthy fats, vitamins and minerals,” says Rebecca Lewis, registered dietitian at HelloFresh. “The presence of fiber, protein and fats is important because it slows digestion, prevents a spike in our blood-sugar levels, and helps us to feel full and satisfied for longer (i.e. curbs cravings).”
That’s why carbohydrate-containing foods like starchy vegetables, legumes and whole grains are included in many healthy diet plans.
Follow the 10:1 rule: Choose foods where for every 10 grams of carbs, there is 1 gram of fiber.
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The simple carbs, often found in processed foods and drinks, are easier for the body to break down, meaning they don’t keep you full as long and can lead to erratic blood sugar levels.
That’s not to say that simple carbs are always bad for us.
“Simple carbohydrates are found in fruits, veggies and dairy — all of which are healthy choices as they also contain good stuff like vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” says Lewis. “However, simple carbs are also found in less healthy foods like refined grains, processed snacks, sweets, soda and juice, which lack extra nutrients. These foods are very quickly digested, which can cause swings in our blood sugar levels and often leave us hungry for more.”
The trick is to look for foods that have a more robust nutritional profile. That apple may have simple carbs, but it also contains a hefty dose of fiber to slow down the digestion of the sugars.
Fact: It’s not the carbs making you fat, it’s the sugar and calories
“Anything is fattening if you eat too much of it, and not all carbohydrate-containing foods have the same calorie density,” says Bowerman. “This myth persists because many people who eat a lot of refined carbs and sugar do lose weight when they cut back on these foods. But it isn’t because they’ve cut out all of the carbs, it’s because they have cut out a lot of the calorie-dense foods.”
Research actually shows that while low-carb eaters tend to lose more weight at first, after one year, that weight loss levels out and is no different than those who eat a low-fat (moderate carb) diet.
That being said, when it comes to carbohydrate-containing foods and weight gain, sugar and excess calories tend to be the culprit.
“Really the secret behind carbohydrates is to identify and limit the amount of added sugar in your carbohydrate sources; highlight whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains; and pay attention to portion sizing carbohydrates along with your protein and fat sources,” says Amanda Markie, MS, RDN, LD, Outpatient Dietitian at UM Baltimore Washington Medical Center. “Sugar can be found naturally in foods like fruits and milk products, as well as being more concentrated into your processed foods like sodas, candy or baked goods,” explains Markie.
Research shows that while low-carb eaters tend to lose more weight at first, after one year, that weight loss levels out and is no different than those who eat a moderate carb diet.
So you want to ensure that you’re choosing sources of carbohydrates that have this naturally-occurring sugar.
“Also look for higher dietary fiber with a lower amount of added sugar, which you can identify if it is one of the first ingredients on the ingredients list,” says Markie. “Limit those foods that have sugar within the first two to three ingredients."
And just because you’re choosing the higher-fiber, low-sugar options doesn’t mean you can eat them in unlimited qualities: portions matter.
“Four cups of quinoa will make anyone gain weight. The quantity is the key strategy,” said Monica Auslander, MS, RDN, the founder of Essence Nutrition. “For example, I'll eat steel cut oatmeal, but only 1/3 cup a day. I'll eat beans, but only 1/2 cup at a time. I'm a petite person and not an athlete, so I can't afford to have three slices of Ezekiel bread for breakfast, a sweet potato at lunch, and three cups of quinoa at dinner.”
Fact: The right carbs stabilize blood-sugar levels for sustained energy
A 2014 study published in the Nutrition Journal found that participants who ate a high-carbohydrate, high-fiber, vegan diet (they got 80 percent of their calories from carbs) actually saw a drop in average blood sugar, plus lost weight and had significant improvements in blood pressure.
Plus, that glucose that our bodies gleans from digestible carb is needed for the functioning of multiple organs, including the brain. So that sugar in the blood stream isn’t just okay — it’s necessary. The problem is when they are released all at once in high doses.
“One thing that we must all remember is that carbohydrates are essential to fuel your brain, boost our energy and maintain our metabolism. The key is to eat the right kinds of food that contain carbohydrates,” says Meghan Daw, RD, LDN, from Fresh Thyme Farmers Market. “These foods contain carbohydrates that are more complex, meaning they contain fiber and other nutrients that take time to digest and allow a slow release of sugar into the body. This slow release does increase blood sugar levels over time but not all at once, preventing some unwanted blood sugar level spikes and symptoms that come along with those spikes.”
Fact: Not always ... you also need to use common sense.
The Glycemic Index is a system that rank foods based on how much a certain portion increases blood sugar when compared to pure glucose.
"One major setback [to the use of the Glycemic Index when choosing what carbohydrates are best] is that this index measures the body’s response when the carbohydrate is eaten without other foods, but how often are we eating a carbohydrate at a meal on its own?" says Markie.
You may have a baked potato for dinner, but there's a good chance it's accompanied by a piece of salmon and some veggies. "Having these foods together can change the speed of digestion and your body’s response," says Markie.
The Glycemic Index can be a guide in determining which foods are the better choices, she adds. Those lower on the scale may be higher in fiber, which slows digestion. But you need to use common sense to make the final judgement.
"There are other cases in which the Glycemic Index does not direct the consumer toward the most healthful choice," says Markie. "For example, a soda has a Glycemic Index of 63, while raisins have a Glycemic Index of 64, however that does not mean raisins and soda have the same nutritional value."
It's a tool you can use, but it should be one tool out of many, as it doesn't take into account the other nutritional values of the food, she adds.
At the end of the day, all carbs are not created equal. So blindly counting net carbs isn’t the best way to establish a healthy diet. But food labels in their current state can be tricky to decode.
“Reading labels will provide you with the quantity of carbohydrate that is in the food, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you about the quality,” says Bowerman. “For example, I have patients who don’t drink milk because of the carbohydrate content, but the carbohydrate in milk is not added, it’s simply the natural sugar (lactose). But it’s hard to tell from a label which carbs are natural and which are added, and unless you read the ingredients list as well, you won’t know the source of the carbohydrate.”
For most packaged items, a high fiber count can be a good sign that a food is a healthy choice. Lewis recommends following the “10:1 rule: Choose foods where for every 10 grams of carbs, there is 1 gram of fiber.”
However, Bowerman caveats that manufacturers can also add fiber to products afterwards, so you should check the ingredients list for a whole food source to ensure the fiber is naturally occurring.
Luckily, deciphering the label is about to get a bit easier. The new food label to be implemented in July 2018 will specifically call out how much of the total sugar in a food is added, making it easier to distinguish between the unhealthy sugars you’ll find in many processed foods and the natural-occurring sugar in whole foods like fruit and milk.
Until then, you can’t go wrong by choosing whole-food sources of carbohydrates that only have one ingredient — themselves!