Are Carbs Bad For You? What The Science Says

Last Updated: February 17, 2024

Introduction

Carbohydrates (aka carbs) have been a debated topic in the nutrition and health realm for years.

They are an essential part of our diet since they provide the primary source of energy for our bodies.

Over the years, various diets and trends have portrayed carbohydrates as the enemy, leading to confusion and misinformation about their role in our diets. So, are carbohydrates truly bad for you? Let’s delve into the science to uncover the truth.

What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Think of them as our body’s energy buddies. They’re the fuel that keeps us going. When consumed, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is used as the primary energy source by our cells. Glucose fuels our brain, muscles, and other bodily functions.

Not all carbohydrates are created equal, and their impact on health can vary depending on factors like type, source, and quantity. They can be categorized into two main groups: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.

Difference Between Simple and Complex Carbs

Simple carbohydrates, often found in foods like sugar, honey, and fruit juices, are composed of one or two sugar molecules (hence the term ‘simple’). They are quickly digested and can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels.

Complex carbohydrates are made of multiple sugar molecules linked together. These are found in foods like whole grains, vegetables, and legumes. Complex carbs take longer to digest, providing a more sustained release of energy and helping to stabilize blood sugar levels.

There’s room in our diets for both simple and complex carbs, but getting the majority from complex sources is probably a good idea for long term health.

Debunking Myths About Carbs

Myth 1: Carbs Make You Gain Weight

Fact: Carbohydrates themselves don’t magically make you gain weight. It’s all about how much you eat. Eating too much of anything – whether it’s carbs, proteins, or fats – can lead to weight gain. The key is to enjoy carbs in sensible portions and pick nutritious, fiber-rich options like whole grains and fruits.

Myth 2: All Carbs Are the Same

Fact: Nope, not all carbs are created equal. There are good ones and not-so-good ones. Good carbs are found in foods like veggies, whole grains, and beans. They’re like slow-burning fuel that keeps you energized. Not-so-good carbs are in sugary snacks and sugary drinks.

Myth 3: You Should Avoid Carbs if You Have Diabetes

Fact: It’s not about avoiding carbs altogether. If you have diabetes, it’s more about choosing the right kind and watching the portion size. Complex carbs, like those in whole grains and non-starchy veggies, can be your friends. They help keep your blood sugar steady. Just talk to your doctor or a dietitian to figure out what works best for you.

Myth 4: Low-Carb Diets Are the Only Way to Lose Weight

Fact: Low-carb diets might help some people lose weight in the short term, but they’re not the only solution. The key to healthy and sustainable weight loss is a balanced diet that you can stick to. Carbs can be part of that! The trick is to choose the most filling ones and to watch your portions.

Myth 5: Carbs Are Always to Blame for Belly Fat

Fact: It’s not just carbs that can lead to belly fat. Eating too many calories from any source – carbs, fats, or proteins – can contribute to extra weight around your middle. The goal is to find a balance and make healthy choices overall.

Myth 6: Glycemic Index Is What Matters

Fact: Using the glycemic index as the sole determinant of a food’s healthfulness can lead you to make some misguided dietary choices. Based on this scale, pound cake has a lower glycemic index than an apple. It’s no question that the apple has more nutrition benefits than the pound cake. This is why you can’t rely solely on the GI- it tells you nothing about how nutritious the food is. When evaluating the effect of a food on health, it’s important to take into account the glycemic load of the food and the overall meal. GI can change depending on how it is cooked or processed, and what other foods it’s eaten with.

Carbs and Digestive Health

Gut health is a major trending topic, and while many people will promote supplements, they often fail to discuss fiber.

Fiber, a type of carbohydrate, plays a vital role in maintaining digestive health. Fiber is divided into two categories: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber, found in foods like oats, beans, and fruits, dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance in the digestive tract. This helps slow down digestion, helping with absorption of nutrients and promoting a feeling of fullness.

Insoluble fiber, present in foods like whole wheat, nuts, and vegetables, adds bulk to stool and supports regular bowel movements.

Only one in ten adults in the US meet the recommended fiber intake (25-35 grams per day, or 14 grams per 1000 calories), putting them at risk for digestive health issues, and increased risk of chronic diseases.

Carbs and Heart Health

Carbohydrate-rich diets can have both positive and negative effects on heart health, depending on the types of carbohydrates consumed. Diets high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. These carbohydrates can lead to elevated triglyceride levels, reduced “good” HDL cholesterol levels, and increased inflammation—all risk factors for heart disease.

Conversely, diets rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. The dietary fiber in these foods helps lower LDL cholesterol levels, stabilize blood sugar, and promote a healthy gut microbiome—all of which contribute to cardiovascular health. It’s a win-win.

Complex carbohydrates, particularly those from whole grains and vegetables, contribute to heart health. They contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals that have been associated with reducing the risk of heart disease. Soluble fiber, in particular, can help lower LDL cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol and removing it from the body.

Carbs and Weight Loss

Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates themselves do not directly cause weight gain. Weight management boils down to the balance between calories consumed and calories expended. Carbohydrates, like any other macronutrient, contribute calories to our diet.

When aiming for weight loss, creating a calorie deficit is key. While reducing carbohydrate intake may lead to initial weight loss due to water loss, a balanced approach that includes a variety of nutrients, including carbohydrates, is crucial for sustainable weight management.

Demonizing all carbohydrates is an oversimplification. Whole, minimally processed carbohydrate sources like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are rich in essential nutrients, dietary fiber, and antioxidants. These foods are associated with various health benefits, including reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Dietitian’s Top Bread Recommendations

People are always surprised by the fact that I don’t recommend eliminating bread for weight loss. Instead, I recommend choosing ones that are filling and nutritious, thanks to their whole grains, fiber, and protein content. Luckily there are tons of new products on the market, so you have so many options to choose from. Below are a few my clients tend to enjoy:

  • Dave’s Killer Bread Powerseed
  • Carbonaut Bread
  • Mission Low Carb Tortillas

Finding the Right Balance

In the end, carbohydrates are not inherently bad for you. It’s the type and quantity of carbs you eat that matter most. A balanced approach to carbohydrate consumption, emphasizing whole, minimally processed foods, can contribute to overall health and well-being. Rather than cutting out carbohydrates entirely, focus on making informed choices that align with your individual nutritional needs and goals.

Individual carbohydrate needs vary based on factors like age, activity level, metabolism, and health status. Consult with a registered dietitian to determine your specific needs.

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