Carbs don’t get any respect. Thanks to a culture obsessed with weight loss and the rise of low-carb diets like ketogenic, Atkins and Whole30, the very idea of eating a slice of pizza or whole grain bagel has some dieters running for the hills.
It’s unfortunate, because the world would be a happier place if we all embraced them. Carbohydrates aren’t the enemy—if anything, they should be your friend.
If you’re looking to improve your health and well-being, don’t shy away from carbs. Here are four important things to know about carbs and why you need to eat them.
Carbohydrates are actually super important
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients, with protein and fat being the other two macronutrients. Macronutrients are a form of energy that our bodies use for fuel. And this energy is super important for your brain function, as well as for protecting against disease. Not to mention, it’ll give you long-lasting energy to power through your day and workout.
“The brain uses about 20% of the energy created from carbohydrates,” said Lori Schnelker, a registered dietitian with Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. “Carbohydrates enable the brain to produce serotonin, which plays a role in mood regulation, sleep cycle and cognition.”
When you don’t have enough carbs in your diet, we may feel grumpy and have difficulty with functions like attention, memory and thinking.
So, if you cut out carbs, you’re also cutting out some wholesome, nutritious food and that can be detrimental to your health.
Believe it or not, most foods have (gasp!) carbs!
Carbohydrates include sugar, starch and fiber, which are found in most foods, and that’s why most foods are considered carbohydrates.
“Sugar occurs naturally in fruit and vegetables and can also be added to products like baked goods, yogurt and energy drinks,” Schnelker said. “Starch and fiber also occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables, along with whole grain foods, beans and legumes.”
Carbs can be either simple carbs or complex carbs, depending on their chemical makeup. While some have health benefits, others can contribute to chronic disease. Let’s break them down, shall we?
These fast-acting carbs are broken down quickly by the body to be used as energy. While they occur naturally in some dairy products and fruits (these are called natural sugars), they are also found in processed foods in the form of refined sugars. Think white sugar, soda, cakes and some baked goods.
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that absorbs quickly because of its short chemical structure and can cause our blood sugar levels to rise quickly. Elevated blood sugars can increase our risk for diabetes and heart disease. Eating foods with refined sugar can increase our cravings and lead to more calories, eating more and gaining weight.
“Starch and fiber are complex carbohydrates and take longer to digest because of their longer chemical structure,” Schnelker said. “The slow digestion results in a more gradual and stable increase in our blood sugar. Plus, we generally feel full longer when we eat complex carbs, which helps with portion control and taking in less calories.”
Foods that contain complex carbs are often less refined than those with added, simple sugars, and provide a higher nutritional value due to the presence of vitamins, minerals and fiber. As such, studies have found they can aid in digestion, lower cholesterol levels and help with weight management.
Complex carbs include whole grains, legumes, starchy vegetables and high-fiber fruits.
However, before we villainize one type of carb over the other, it’s important to note that many foods contain both simple and complex carbohydrates. For example, carrots, potatoes and bread contain sugar, fiber and starch. Strawberries, tomatoes and broccoli contain sugar and fiber.
Carbs can actually help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight
Research shows that low-carb diets hardly made any detectable difference in weight loss compared to a diet high in carbs. While a low-carb diet may help lower insulin levels, which can be useful if you’re diabetic, there's not enough research to prove the calorie-burning effects.
“Carbohydrates have gained a bad rap over the years mainly because they are said to be the cause of weight gain,” Schnelker said. “The topic of carbs and weight gain is a bit more complicated though and has more to do with how many and what type of carbs you’re eating.”
When you eat more simple carbs like donuts, white bread and flavored coffee drinks, you’re typically taking in more calories than what your body needs. Plus, these types of foods are quickly digested, causing a quick spike and then decline in your blood sugar. This can cause you to feel hungrier quicker, which can lead you to take in more calories than your body needs.
When our bodies have enough energy in circulation and our storage level is adequate, the extra carbs can result in fat storage. Hence, leading to weight gain.
Complex carbs will also increase your blood sugar, but since they take longer to digest, this is a more slow, gradual process. Plus, you generally feel fuller longer when you eat complex carbs, which helps with portion control and taking in less calories.
Carbs before a workout can boost your performance
Carbohydrates are the most important source of fuel for a healthy, active lifestyle. Your body uses carbs as energy for basic functions like breathing and thinking to more intense functions like weightlifting or yoga.
“Carbohydrates are also stored as energy in our liver, muscles and other cells,” Schnelker said. “This stored energy can be used by the body as needed between meals, it can help keep our blood sugar levels stable, support recovery and it can help us to maintain our muscle mass.”
Some good carbohydrate sources to support physical activity include oatmeal, sweet potatoes, bananas, pasta, dried fruit and nutrition bars.
Adults and children need a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrates per day to maintain normal brain function.
“As a rule of thumb, it’s good to keep your carbohydrate intake to around 40% to 65% of your total calories,” Schnelker said. “Another approach or recommendation is to have half of your plate with fruits and vegetables and one quarter with whole grains and one quarter with protein.”
A few additional carb-loving tips
As you can see, carbs aren’t the enemy and deserve a little of our respect. Carbs can help you maintain a healthy lifestyle, boost mood and maintain weight. So, it’s totally OK to enjoy carbs in moderation.
Here are some additional tips to stay on track:
- Focus on carbohydrates that are nutrient-dense with fiber, vitamins and minerals. All fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables are great carb choices that have many health benefits. Beans and legumes have fiber, they have healthy fats and can be a good source of protein. They are also a good source of folate. Whole grains are a healthy carb choice with fiber and offer a good source of B vitamins.
- Limit or avoid foods with added sugar like baked goods, soda and ice cream. These types of foods likely have no significant health or nutrient benefit and have more calories. Try to keep your intake of added sugar to less than 25 grams.
- Fill your plate: As mentioned earlier, fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, one quarter with whole grains and one quarter with protein.
If you have questions about your diet or wellness goals, don’t go it alone. Talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian. To find a health care specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.