Myth-busters, Nutrition Edition: Carbohydrates
In our social-media-driven society where diet culture is falsely praised, it can feel overwhelming to find accurate, unbiased information regarding nutrition. Diet culture preys on vulnerability, and lack of nutrition knowledge. One account focuses on “food freedom,” while a few scrolls later another account promises rapid weight loss by cutting out whole food groups. Often, a scroller chooses the latter. Creating a trap of restriction and false hope. With the absence of nutrition knowledge, it is hard to decipher what is evidence-based information and what is not. Leaving society members disheartened, defeated, and ready to look for their next “quick fix.” This cycle continues, and diet-culture wins.
Commonly, the whole food group being “cut out” of the diet is carbohydrates. Poor carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap when in actuality, carbs are the most essential to nutritional health with many added benefits. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel or energy. Contrary to what diet culture wants us to believe, people crave carbohydrates not from “addiction to sugar,” but because our bodies know the positive impacts carbohydrates have on them. Our bodies need carbohydrates to thrive, and it's important to understand why.
Carb-phobia is a belief or fear that consuming carbohydrates will lead to negative health outcomes like weight gain. A phobia driven by diet trends such as Atkins or the keto diet that support low-carbohydrate diets. Now, ask yourself…What is “bad” about carbohydrates?; What are you afraid of? Reflect as you continue to read.
To comprehend why carbs are good for us, we need to learn what diet culture has portrayed them to be. Below, are 5 Common myths we will debunk in this blog.
1. Carbs come from bread, grains, and pasta, only. Most plant foods contain carbs, as well as milk products. This includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. Fruits, vegetables, milk, and dairy products are high-carbohydrate-containing foods just as bread, grains, and pasta are. However, fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars rather than added sugars. Foods that are high in fiber and low in added sugars are nutrient-dense carbohydrate-containing foods.
2. All carbs are the same. Carbohydrates are not made equal. There are two types of carbohydrates: Simple and Complex. Simple carbohydrates are easily and quickly digested, and send an instant burst of glucose or energy into the bloodstream. This energy dissolves quickly meaning one will not feel full very long after eating only simple carbs. Simple carbohydrates can be in the form of naturally occurring sugar or added sugar. Naturally occurring sugars are extremely nutritious because they contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber all nutrients our bodies need to thrive. Added sugars do not provide these same essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and fiber) to the body.
Complex carbohydrates take the body longer to process and digest. Which means they release energy into the bloodstream more slowly. Thus, sustaining energy longer. There are two types of complex carbs: starch and fiber, both occurring naturally. Like simple carbohydrates, some complex sugars are more healthful to the body than others. White flour and rice have undergone a process that removes beneficial nutrients like B vitamins and dietary fiber; unless fortified. In contrast, whole grains like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta do not undergo this process. Whole or unrefined grains keep their nutrients and fiber, making whole grains the more healthful choice of complex carbs.
Examples of foods containing natural simple sugars include:
Examples of simple carbohydrates with added sugars include:
- Sports drinks
Complex carbohydrates found naturally in foods include:
- Apple or other fruits (fiber)
- Starchy vegetables like sweet potato
- Whole grains like quinoa
- Whole grain products like brown rice
To follow up, it is important to understand that there are no “good” or “bad” foods. It is not as straightforward as “all simple carbs are bad and all complex carbs are good,” Or “unprocessed is better than unprocessed.” For example, white bread is a complex carb but it does not mean it is the most nutrient-dense choice of bread. Whole grain bread can be extremely processed yet, it is still a complex carb that is healthful to the diet. Variety is the key when choosing carbohydrates. Consuming a balanced diet with both types of carbohydrates will help you be successful in your health journey.
3. Low-carb diets are “healthy.” The idea that foods or diets are “healthy” or “unhealthy” is a product of diet culture. Daily meal patterns that are intentionally low in carbohydrates can unintentionally cause restrictive patterns that are harmful to the body if they persist. Additionally, long-term low-carb diets are associated with poor health outcomes like higher mortality due to lack of adequate fiber from fruit and vegetables. A common reason why people choose to go “low-carb” is for weight loss because carbs are often perceived as “fattening.” The truth, no one thing can cause weight gain or loss. Weight is personal and is affected by a multitude of factors including hormones and stress. Weight loss is complex and treatment should be individualized for best results. This is the reason all “diets” do not work for everyone. It is recommended that carbohydrates should be the bulk of a person’s daily intake making up 45-65% of total caloric needs. Without exceeding caloric needs, increased consumption of complex carbohydrates like whole grains and fruit is associated with a reduced risk of weight gain. Another misconception is that all “white foods” should be avoided to reduce carbohydrates in the diet. Again, this mindset is restrictive and inaccurate. Often referring to white bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes. The problem with the blanket statement, “avoid all white foods,” is that it also includes high-nutrient foods like potatoes which contain important nutrients including potassium and vitamin C. Along with cauliflower, garlic, onions, leeks, apples, and mushrooms which are then avoided solely for their color rather than their carbohydrate content.
4. Avoid fruit because of sugar content. Avoiding fruit due to its high sugar or carbohydrate content not only creates a restrictive mindset, but it is neglects your body of the beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber gained from fruits. Fruits contain both natural simple and complex carbohydrates; so yes, fruits are high-sugar-containing foods. However, compared to added sugars, sugar consumed from fruit contains healthful carbohydrates that humans need daily for optimal nutrition. Added sugars found in candy or soda do not contain these healthful nutrients; therefore, added sugars should be limited. Increased daily intake of high-fiber fruits like apples, kiwi, and strawberries along with low glycemic fruits like oranges and berries is associated with a lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes.
5. Sugar-free means carb-free. This may be the biggest misconception about carbs! Product labeling is governed by the FDA. The FDA allows products to be labeled “sugar-free” if they contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar. Therefore, sugar or carbohydrates are allowed in the product. When a food product is denoted as “sugar-free” very rarely, if ever, does it mean 100% free of any carbohydrates or sugar. Under the same FDA regulations, food labels must display how many carbohydrates, added sugars, or sugar alcohols a product has—also, requiring a list of the actual ingredients.
According to answerthepublic.com, these are some of the most common questions searched on the internet about carbohydrates.
1. What carbs are good for you? ALL! The purpose of carbs is to provide energy, which is essential to overall bodily functions. Essentially, whether you eat a starburst or an apple your body breaks down the sugar molecules in that food the same way. The body uses the broken-down sugar molecules called glucose to serve the body with energy. The body cannot decipher where the carbohydrates come from, it simply takes the carbohydrates and converts them to energy through glucose metabolism. For optimal nutritional health, it is critical to choose a variety of carbohydrates. Focusing on increasing whole grains and limiting refined and added sugars.
2. Which carbs are healthy? As mentioned, labeling foods as healthy or unhealthy is not the best practice for developing a positive relationship with food. It is beneficial to overall health to diversify carbohydrate intake, not that one is “better” or “healthier” than the other, but they serve different purposes for the body.
3. How do carbs affect the body? Carbs affect the body in several ways. Although the primary use of carbohydrates is to act as fuel for energy. Carb intake aids in metabolism, glycemic control, protection against diseases, and weight control.
To conclude, if you struggle with carb-phobia or have guilt about eating carbohydrates use this blog as a reference to reframe your mindset. Understanding what carbs are and how they benefit the body will help you overcome barriers that hinder you from including necessary carbohydrates in your diet. Seek a Registered Dietitian for additional guidance.
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