Carbs are one of the most misunderstood macronutrients. Should we eat them? Should we avoid them? Do they lead to weight gain?
Spend two minutes scrolling social media and you'll likely only be more confused, with half the posts "eat them, they do a body good" and the others shouting, "you can't eat carbs and lose weight!" How are you supposed to know what's fact, and what's fiction?
Fact: Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients we need to perform, feel and function our best. In fact, they're your body's preferred energy source. Yet sadly, there's so much confusion around them, many people avoid them out of fear (thanks diet culture) and as a result, aren't giving their body the carbs it really needs to thrive.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, dairy products and whole grains are all examples of CARBS that also boast a variety of other essential vitamins and minerals. Making them an important part of a healthy and balanced diet.
So why do Carbs get such a bad wrap? It often comes down to understanding the difference between simple and complex carbs.
Why are Carbohydrates so important?
Carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy. They give you the energy to walk, talk, run, hike, climb, crawl, think, dance, pick things up and put them down and much more. And they help you support a healthy waistline, supply essential vitamins and minerals, and empower healthy body function.
The natural sugars and starches found in carbs are broken down by the body and turned into glucose so they can be used as energy.
The fiber found in carbs is not broken down by the body, instead it helps you feel full, (an important part of maintaining a healthy weight), and supports healthy body function.
Carbs contain soluble and insoluble fiber. The soluble fiber helps to lower cholesterol and improve blood glucose control, and the insoluble fiber adds bulk, keeping you regular.
What is the difference between simple and complex Carbs?
In the nutrition world, carbohydrates are often referred to as "simple" or "complex."
Simple carbohydrates are typically found in highly processed foods, such as crackers, chips, candy, sweetened beverages, white pastas and breads. Added sugar tends to be high in the ingredient list and the body doesn't recognize these carbs as a nutrient it needs. When you eat these foods it often causes your blood sugar to spike, making your insulin work overtime and because most of us aren't hitting the gym right after downing a bag of chips, your body tends to store it as fat.
Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are typically less processed (or unprocessed), containing fiber and other vitamins and minerals, naturally occurring in foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The body recognizes these carbs and puts them to work, giving you the energy you need for day-to-day tasks and using their accompanying nutrients to support a variety of healthy body functions.
Does this mean you can't enjoy crackers, chips or muffins? No, it simply means a balanced diet that includes both fun foods and nutrient dense foods is going to best support your health and overall wellness.
The problem with restricting carbs.
Over the past few years we've seen a big increase in diet plans promoting low and no carb eating. And that's a real problem.
When you restrict carbs, you're not removing the body's primary energy source, but consistently severely restricting your intake of complex carbs over time can lead to a condition called ketosis. Ketosis occurs when the body has to use fat for energy because it does not have enough carbohydrates from food to support the body's energy demands. And while you might think, "Great, I'll just burn off all the fat!" It's not really that simple.
Each macronutrient has its own job to do: protein, fat and carbohydrates. And the body needs each of these to support and maintain healthy body function. When one nutrient is lacking, it forces the others to try and take on its role, which strains the body and its abilities to perform, feel and function at its best.
And restricting food not only causes physical damage, but mental and emotional damage too. Suddenly we're labeling foods as 'good' and 'bad', creating a power struggle with the foods we love, grew up enjoying and are a part of our culture and heritage. We begin to to feel bad about our food preferences, choices and ultimately ourselves for ever having enjoyed fun. Which is why I often remind my clients: food is not just fuel, it's much more.
How many carbohydrates does your body need?
Nutrition is not one-size-fits-all. The amount of carbohydrates that is going to be best support your body depends on several factors: your age, activity level, current weight and/or weight loss goals, and current health for example. The general recommendation is that 35-65% of your daily caloric intake come from carbs (based on a 2,000 calorie diet). Start by asking, what can I ADD to my plate? Foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, dairy products and whole grains are going to offer you the greatest nutritional benefit, helping you feel and function your best.
Examples of Complex Carbs
Variety of Fruits
Variety of Vegetables
Dark Leafy Greens
Whole Wheat Products
Nuts & Seeds
Unsweetened Greek Yogurt
Examples of Simple Carbs
Candy, Candy Bars and other Sugar Coated Foods
Sweetened Carbonated Beverages
Fruit Leather and Fruit Flavored Snacks
Bottom line: carbohydrates are part of a healthy and well balanced diet. Your body needs carbs to perform, feel and function its best. Most complex carbs also provide a variety of essential vitamins and minerals, key to supporting health and wellness. Cutting carbs can be detrimental both for your short and long term health. As a nutritionist, I'm a firm believer that ALL foods fit, which is why I work with my clients on fostering a healthy food balance where fun and nutrient dense foods co-exist. There's plenty of room for pizza and salad to fit at the table and your physical and mental health will thank you for it.
Are you tired of starting over every Monday, hopping from diet to diet, wondering if you'll ever get it "right" so that you can lose the weight and become the best version of you? I’ve got you friend! Come join me inside my FREE women’s-only Facebook community: Eat Better with Coach Mindy. It's for busy women like you who are ready to lose weight, gain energy, get healthy and fit -- without restrictive diets or punishing food rules.