Carbohydrates have been demonized in recent years, with many people seeing them as bad for weight loss and overall health. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, carbohydrates are an essential component of a healthy diet. So why the misconception? What role do carbs play in our health? Let’s take a closer look.
The Low-Carb Craze
In the early 2000s, low-carb diets became all the rage. Popularized by the Atkins diet, people thought that by cutting out carbohydrates, they could lose weight quickly and effectively. The idea was that carbohydrates lead to weight gain because they spike our insulin levels, making us store more fat. The logic seemed sound, and many people jumped on board the low-carb train.
However, the low-carb craze quickly led to misconceptions about carbohydrates. People began to view all carbs as bad, and some even cut out fruits and vegetables in an effort to reduce their carbohydrate intake. This, of course, is not only misguided but also dangerous.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Before we discuss the role that carbohydrates play in our health, we need to define what they are. Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that are essential for human health. The other two are protein and fat.
Carbohydrates are molecules that consist of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They are found in foods like bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, and fruit. When we eat carbohydrates, our bodies break them down into glucose, which our cells use for energy.
Why Do We Need Carbohydrates?
As we just mentioned, carbohydrates are a vital source of energy. Our bodies need glucose to function properly. In fact, our brains rely almost exclusively on glucose for fuel.
But carbohydrates do more than provide energy. They also fuel our muscles during physical activity, help us recover after exercise, and regulate our mood by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Furthermore, carbohydrates are critical for gut health, with many types of dietary fiber coming from carbohydrate sources like fruits and vegetables.
The Types of Carbohydrates
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates – These are made up of one or two sugar molecules and are often found in foods like candy, soda, and pastries. Because they are quickly digested by the body, they lead to a rapid spike in blood sugar levels.
Complex carbohydrates – These are made up of three or more sugar molecules and are found in foods like whole grains, beans, and vegetables. They take longer to digest, which means they are absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream, leading to a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels.
It’s important to note that not all simple carbohydrates are bad for you. Fruits, for example, contain simple sugars but are also packed with fiber and other essential nutrients. It’s the added sugars in things like candy and soda that are problematic.
The Benefits of Carbohydrates
Now that we know more about what carbohydrates are and why we need them let’s take a closer look at their health benefits.
One study from Harvard University found that a diet high in whole grains, which are a complex carbohydrate, was associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Another study found that people who ate a diet high in carbohydrates had better cognitive function than those who ate a low-carbohydrate diet.
Furthermore, carbohydrates can help with weight loss. A 2018 study found that a diet high in fiber, which comes from many carbohydrate sources, was associated with lower body weight and BMI. This is likely because fiber helps you feel full, which can lead to decreased calorie intake.
The Bottom Line
The misconception that carbohydrates are bad for you is just that – a misconception. Carbohydrates are an essential component of a healthy diet and provide many health benefits. Instead of cutting out carbs altogether, focus on eating a balanced diet that includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and other sources of complex carbohydrates.
– Harvard School of Public Health. “Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar.” The Nutrition Source.
– Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “Healthy Carbohydrates for a Healthy Diet.”
– “Good Carbs, Bad Carbs: Get the Skinny on Sugars and Sweeteners,” by Johanna Burani
– “The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet: The Lifelong Solution to Yo-Yo Dieting,” by Richard & Rachael Heller