The Truth About Carbs
by Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN
It seems like everywhere you turn these days someone is cutting carbs from their diet. But, the sugars, starches, and fibers that make up the carbohydrates found in fruits, grains, and vegetables get a bad rap. Your body needs them for energy. Before you swear off carbs entirely, let’s explore the science behind some common concerns.
Myth: All carbs are the same.
Truth: Carb quality varies depending on the food.
Carbs are in fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, grains, sweets, bread, pasta, and many snack foods. The carbs found in whole, non-processed foods offer important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (plant nutrients with known health benefits).
Carbs found in fruit, whole grains, vegetables, and legumes are especially good for you. They contain fiber, which slows digestion and can help with weight management and blood sugar control. Plus, fiber may also help to lower cholesterol, which is linked to better heart health.
Refined carbs, like sweets and food made from white flour, offer little nutrition and are digested much more quickly than unrefined grains. These carbs might be incredibly tasty, and in small quantities can be part of a healthy diet, but they aren’t as good for you as less processed carbohydrates.
Myth 2: Carbs cause weight gain.
Truth: Eliminating carbs won’t guarantee that you shed pounds for good.
Cutting out carb-heavy foods like pasta and bread can result in short-term weight loss, but a low-carb diet isn’t a guaranteed ticket to a smaller body.
In fact, a recent study comparing low-carb and low-fat diets showed that both resulted in similar weight loss over the short-term. In the long-term, however, restriction of an entire food group—no matter what it is—will likely lead to binge eating and weight regain. And no one wants that!
So why do you experience weight loss by limiting carbs? Every carbohydrate gram is stored in your body with up to three grams of water, so when you cut carbs, you reduce your body’s water retention. Therefore, the pounds you’re shedding are water weight, not fat. As soon as you reintroduce carbs to your diet, that water weight will return.
To manage your weight, eat a balanced diet that includes fiber-rich carbohydrates, lean protein, and plant-based fat.
Myth: Carbs cause inflammation.
Truth: Many carbohydrate-rich foods actually fight inflammation.
This belief stems from research showing that diets high in processed foods, including refined carbohydrates, are associated with inflammation in the body. In fact, many carbohydrate-rich foods, including beans, fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains offer nutrients that fight inflammation. Diets rich in plants, and therefore carbohydrates, like vegan, vegetarian, and Mediterranean-style diets are linked to lower rates of inflammation related diseases. To reduce inflammation, eat a diet rich in plants and emphasize whole foods over processed foods.
Myth: Carbs are bad for your health.
Truth: Whole food carbohydrates are actually good for you—and necessary!
Carbs are an essential macronutrient and are the primary source of energy for the body, particularly the brain. Plus, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds (read: whole food carbohydrates) provide important health-promoting nutrients that can’t be found in other foods. In other words, you need these foods!
A recent study shows that a moderate carbohydrate diet (with 50-55% of calories from carbs) is associated with a longer life span, whereas both very low carb and high carb diets are associated with shorter lifespans.
In addition, people who follow plant-forward diets that include unrefined carbohydrates are some of the healthiest people on the planet.
Myth: Avoid “white” foods.
Truth: This one is more on the true side than not, but…
It’s unnecessary to completely avoid any single food unless you have an allergy or sensitivity.
That said, refined carbohydrates, or white foods, like sweets, many packaged snacks, white bread and pasta offer little nutritional value; limit these foods as they may contribute to poor health.
Plus, these refined carbs lack fiber and protein, the nutrients that make you feel full and regulate your blood sugar. As a result, you could experience hunger and sugar cravings, which lead to over eating (which is what cause weight gain, not carbs themselves).
These are delicious foods, however, and on occasion, especially paired with other nutritious foods, can be part of a healthy diet. The stress that may come from following rigid food rules can be more detrimental than eating the occasional piece of cake.
When it comes to carbohydrates, quality matters. By avoiding carbohydrates completely, you miss many health-promoting nutrients that can’t be found in other foods.
Purple Carrot meals contain many high-quality carbohydrates and are an easy way to add more plants to your diet.
Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN is a Boston-based registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and nutrition communication specialist helping active people fuel their busy lives so they can feel their best.
Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Marketing from The George Washington University and a Master of Science in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She completed her Dietetic Internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard University teaching hospital in Boston, MA.
When not in the kitchen, you can find Sarah seeking out the latest restaurant opening, teaching indoor cycling, running, training for triathlons, or hiking or skiing with her husband and golden retriever pup.