Carbohydrates: A Friend or Foe in Nutrition?

Mention “carbs” to people, and they’ll recoil like Dracula at a cross. This applies to both men and women who are particularly trying to lose weight. For decades, carbohydrates have been the scapegoat of nutrition. Low-carb diets have never truly left the dieting scene, always managing to withstand the test of time (even sit-down restaurants boast low-carb and gluten free options) but despite popular belief, should carbohydrates really be avoided at all costs?

Benefits of Carbohydrates

No amount of information can refute that carbohydrates will always be the body’s main source of energy. According to Choose MyPlate, the current nutrition guide published by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, three-fourths of the plate are made up of carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and grains). It is one of the three essential macronutrients.

Carbohydrates help fuel vital organs such as your brain, kidneys, heart, muscles and central nervous system. Other health benefits include supporting heart health, reducing the risk of cancer, improving sleep patterns, contributing to muscle mass, and improve life span, among others.

Why all the Hate?

People who are trying to lose weight have a stronger bias against carbohydrates as oppose to those who want to build muscle. The resistance to carbohydrates is most famously upheld by the Atkins diet. Developed by Dr. Robert Atkins in 1972, this diet argues a lower carbohydrate intake promotes weight loss, but doesn’t leave you hungry.

Near fifty years later, the Atkins brand is still on shelves, and some people still follow the diet to this day. This low-carb logic branches out into other diets such as Paleo, Ketogenic, and Zero-Carb, just to name a few. Although these diets have good intentions, it has led to the belief that carbohydrates should never be consumed, especially in the perpetual struggle to lose weight and get lean.

It is true that restricting carbohydrates lends itself to fat-loss, since your body cannot use glucose for energy and must rely on burning fat for energy. When your body starts doing this, you have achieved a state called ketosis. In measuring your ketones, around 1.5 – 3 mmol/L is the range for optimal ketosis, which is ideal for maximum weight loss. However, this process doesn’t happen overnight — it can take anywhere from two days to a week for your body to achieve ketosis.

You can’t fall off the bandwagon either; you have to restrict your intake to around 20-50 grams of net carbohydrates per day. To put that in perspective, one cup of cereal is around 55 grams. Plus, considering the traditional American diet, achieving ketosis takes enormous willpower. No pizza or pasta, no bun on your burger, no slice of birthday cake — sounds a bit miserable, doesn’t it?

Fortunately, there’s a better way. You can have that birthday cake and eat it too. The most nutritionally sound option is to select complex, unrefined carbohydrates.

Choosing the Right Carbohydrates

There are four subtypes of carbohydrates: simple vs complex, and refined vs unrefined. Simple carbohydrates are also called simple sugars. This relates to white table sugar, often used in bakery items. Complex carbohydrates are also called starches, such as bread, pasta, and rice. Both can be a part of a balanced diet, but when it comes to which you should consume more of, complex carbohydrates are the clear winner.

Then there is the choice between refined and unrefined carbohydrates. Refined grain products have been processed to remove key nutrients and fiber, so choose unrefined first. The fiber in unrefined carbohydrates will keep you full, such as a bowl oatmeal in the morning. Stick with brown over white, such as brown rice as opposed white rice. And like Oprah, you can have bread too, just choose ones made with whole meal and whole-grain flour, just look at the fiber content on the nutrition labels to make the best decision.

Fruits and vegetables are the most nutritional source of carbohydrates. Even though fruit contains sugar, it also contains vitamins and minerals that are essential for your body. For instance, bananas get flack because of their high carbohydrate content, but they are a good source of potassium, an electrolyte that’s essential to the healthy functioning of your body.

Sweet potatoes are one of my personal favorite sources of carbohydrates. They contain vitamin A, vitamin C, manganese, copper, just to name a few. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower (the only exception to the brown over white rule), are beneficial due to their high fiber content. Add protein and healthy fat and you have yourself a healthy meal.

What about Gluten?

Gluten is defined as the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley and acts as the glue that holds food together. Often people confused gluten as a synonym for carbohydrates, but any carbohydrate-containing foods will contain gluten if the flour comes from wheat, rye or barley. Some gluten-free foods can still have carbohydrates, but it comes from grains and beans that are naturally free of gluten.

A person with Celiac disease cannot consume gluten because it will damage the small intestine. One in one-hundred people worldwide have this disease. At the moment, the only treatment for Celiac disease a strict gluten-free diet.

However, there is no real evidence that a gluten-free diet promotes weight loss or muscle gain. It’s simply a fad. Gluten-free products are mostly made for people with Celiac or another sensitivity, and should not be advertised otherwise. Unless you have Celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, there is no need to go gluten-free.

The Final Verdict

Whatever your nutritional goals are, don’t be so quick to slam the door on carbohydrates. A load of pasta isn’t good for any nutritionally sound diet, but selecting whole grain pasta or even choosing pasta made from lentils or beans works. It’s all about choices and moderation — if you’re craving a piece of sugary candy, have it once, just not every day.

Sure, limiting carbs doesn’t hurt if you want to drop a few pounds, but not only is there no reason to cut them out completely, but it’s near impossible. Repeat after me: Carbs are friends and food.