“I hear carbs are bad for you. Is that true?”
As a nutrition expert, I get asked this question quite often. Nutrition has become popular and trendy with widely available information (although not always from credible sources). The trend right now is to eat a low-carb, high fat diet. But is that actually best for you?
First, let’s define carbohydrates. Remember carbs are fruit, beans, lentils, cooked pastas or cereals, breads, crackers, starchy vegetables, and dairy – these are many foods that provide many nutrients.
Second, let’s think about what carbohydrates provide for us. They are the body’s preferred source of energy for sports performance, provide fuel for our brains, can be great sources of fiber and B-vitamins, and are fundamental in some cultures’ meal patterns.
Third, let’s reframe the question. Food is neither “good” nor “bad.” Food is simply food. It falls on a spectrum of healthful (we usually think of this as nutrient-density) and palatable or pleasurable (we usually think of this as calorie-density). Foods impact each individual’s gut, brain, and metabolic systems differently. In fact, exciting research is emerging regarding “nutrigenomics,” which could, in the future, lead to a customized diet for your specific genes and environment.
So the real question is: where do carbohydrates fall on this spectrum of health and pleasure for an individual, what impact could it have on their specific health conditions, and are all carbohydrates created alike?
The Healthiest Diets are Diverse
Diverse diets are full of many flavors and ingredients. Foods rich in carbohydrates provide essential nutrients such as fiber, B-vitamins, calcium, iron and more. So the bottom line is more options equals a healthier diet.
Research also shows us that some people have an easier time losing and/or maintaining their weight loss eating lower carbohydrate diets than low-fat or other diets. Some promising research also indicates reducing inflammation with a gluten-free diet. Much of this is still in the process of being studied, and the findings are too preliminary to use for widespread recommendations with the general public.
Many groups are accustomed to using foods such as rice or lentils as main staples in their diet. Removing these foods completely may be difficult or unsustainable as this doesn’t match one’s customary preferences. Also, the patterns of friends and family members can weigh heavily.
The Lure of Sugar
Carbohydrates break down into sugar in our body. From our brain’s viewpoint, sugar can be addictive to some people. So it’s logical to be concerned that too many processed, refined, and overly sugary carbs could send us into a spiral of hunger and cravings that is difficult to manage. If a food feels so addictive that it’s difficult to portion appropriately or causes obsessive thoughts or negative emotions, it might be worth assessing the pros and cons of a life without those foods.
To Lower Carbs or to Not Lower Carbs?
If you put it all together, it’s not a simple answer. However, if you find you feel addicted to some foods, if you have an inflammatory condition, or if you struggle to lose weight when trying to eat a low-fat diet, then perhaps this is a healthy choice for you. Then, carbohydrates should be eaten in lower amounts, and perhaps some foods should be eaten on very rare occasions and not daily.
Where to Start
If you decide to eliminate grains (or any other carbohydrate) from your diet for longer than a few weeks, include as much nutritional variety as you can. Create a rainbow of colors on your plate, and vary your meals throughout the week. Also talk to your physician about taking a multivitamin supplement to support your nutrient needs.
If you’re interested in lowering your carbohydrate intake healthfully, I suggest starting by following one simple rule: try to keep the amount of protein (fish, meat, tofu, etc.) the same as the amount of carbohydrate at every meal and snack.
Remember that whatever path you choose, it must be sustainable to establish a habit and eventually become a lifestyle.
The information provided here is general. Your needs are individual. Make an appointment to meet with a registered dietitian for the most accurate and appropriate answer to all of your nutrition questions.
Our dieticians have experience in a wide array of specialties including diabetes, vegetarian nutrition, family nutrition, sports, diabetes, weight management and more. To schedule an appointment with one of our experts call 425-861-6258.
By Erika DeRooy, RD, CD