You've heard it before. On the news. At a restaurant. In the gym. "I'm trying to cut back on carbs so I can lose these last few pounds."
For the last decade or so, it seems like everyone is talking about carbs. Whether you've heard that excess carbs can lead to weight gain, increase your risk of getting Type 2 Diabetes or are just generally unhealthy, you've most likely talked about cutting carbs yourself or have had a discussion with someone that is/has. But why? Why do so many people seem to fear carbohydrates? Is there any basis for these concerns? I believe the answer is No. but Yes. Let me explain by first talking about what carbohydrates are.
Carbs (carbohydrates) are one of the three primary macronutrients found in food (and shown on food labels), along with proteins and fats (lipids). In science class you may have learned that they are molecules consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Outside of school you would have learned that they are a key source of energy for the body.
Carbs can be found in varying levels in many different foods and food products, however when most people think of carbs the foods that most often come to mind are pasta, breads, pastries, rice, and potatoes. While it is certainly true that these foods contain higher levels of carbohydrates, you'll also find high levels of carbohydrates in vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and even nuts and seeds.
Here's where much of the confusion comes in - which carbs are good for you, and which are not? The easiest (and quickest) answer to this question is...good carbs are those found in whole, unprocessed plant foods. Vegetables, fruits, brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, and beans (all types) all contain carbohydrates that provide energy throughout the day and are beneficial for just about every function in the body.
Refined carbohydrates are found in foods such as donuts, cakes, cookies, ice cream, white bread, white pasta, energy drinks/bars, fruit juices, etc. They are typically low in essential nutrients and fiber (or have fiber added), and are high in added sugars and starches. Consuming large amounts of refined carbs can lead to weight gain, Type 2 Diabetes, have little (or no) nutritional value, and may sometimes cause tooth decay.
Recommendation: It is best to cut back on refined carbohydrates, and processed foods in general. Ideally, eliminate these foods completely from your diet, as they are typically just empty calories. But hey, if you want to enjoy a Raw Matcha & Blueberry Cheesecake once in a while, we won't judge. ;)
Simple carbohydrates are made up of 1-2 sugar molecules and are found in foods such as fruit, fresh fruit juices and milk. Simple carbs are quickly utilized for energy by the body because of their simple chemical structure, which can lead to a faster rise in blood sugar and insulin secretion. In healthy individuals this is not a concern, however diabetics (especially Type 1) will need to be cautious with the amount of simple carbohydrates they consume.
Recommendation: Most fruits do contain high levels of simple carbohydrates, however they also contain fiber, which helps to reduce blood sugar spikes, and are high in vitamins, minerals and other healthy nutrients. Many studies have shown fruit to be very beneficial and Dr. Greger of NutritionFacts.org (reviews most, if not ALL, nutrition studies published each year) has stated that the #1 risk factor for disease in the United States is 'not eating enough fruit'. You should do your own research, however around here we eat a lot of fruit! :)
Exception: Milk contains simple carbohydrates (lactose), however it also contains saturated fat which may increase risks for various diseases. Additionally, the calcium in cows milk may not be as protective against osteoporosis and bone fractures as one might think - studies have actually shown that the countries consuming the most milk also have the highest rates of osteoporosis.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of long chains of sugar molecules that are strung together and are typically referred to as dietary starch. These sugar molecules are still broken down and utilized by the body for energy, however the process is much slower and therefore has less impact on blood sugar. Additionally, foods high in complex carbs are often rich in fiber and high in vitamins and minerals. Whole plant foods that are great sources of complex carboydrates include leafy green vegetables, whole grains (oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta, etc.), starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and pumpkin, as well as legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils.
Recommendation: Fill your plate with whole, unprocessed plant foods and eat until you are 80% full. Most of your diet should be taken up by dark leafy greens, legumes, whole grains, starchy vegetables and fruit.
If you're looking to lose weight, low-carb diets may help you short term (any diet that restricts calories can do this, regardless of what you are eating), however the cultures with the highest concentrations of centenarians (100 yr olds) get most of their calories from carbohydrate-rich foods.
Don't take our word for it though - we encourage you to do your own homework and make your own decisions. These are simply our opinions on the subject. ;)
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