Carbohydrates generally get a bad reputation. Here we aim to tell you the truth. Period.
Why would you want to eat fewer carbohydrates?
According to research, reducing the amount of carbs you eat is one of the best ways to lose weight. It tends to reduce your appetite and cause “automatic” weight loss, without the need to count calories.
This means you can eat until fullness, feel satisfied and still lose weight.
Are carbs ‘bad’?
There are good arguments on both sides of the fence, and it appears that carbohydrate requirements depend largely on the individual. Some people do better with a lower carb intake, while others do just fine eating plenty of carbs.
Not all carbs are created equal.
There are many different types of carbohydrate-containing foods, and they vary greatly in their health effects. Although carbs are often referred to as “simple” vs “complex,” think of them as “whole” vs “refined”.
Whole carbs are unprocessed and contain the fibre found naturally in the food, while refined carbs have been processed and had the natural fibre stripped out.
Examples of whole carbs include vegetables, whole fruit, legumes, potatoes and whole grains. These foods are generally healthy.
On the other hand, refined carbs include sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juices, pastries, white bread, white pasta, white rice and others.
Numerous studies show that refined carbohydrate consumption is associated with health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes. They tend to cause major spikes in blood sugar levels, which leads to a subsequent crash that can trigger hunger and cravings for more high-carb foods.
This is the “blood sugar roller coaster” that many people are familiar with.
Refined carbohydrate foods are usually also lacking in essential nutrients. In other words, they are “empty” calories. The added sugars are another story altogether, they are the absolute worst carbohydrates and linked to all sorts of chronic diseases.
However, it makes no sense to get rid of all carbohydrate-containing foods because of the health effects of their processed counterparts. Whole food sources of carbohydrates are loaded with nutrients and fibre, and don’t cause the same spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. Hundreds of studies on high-fibre carbohydrates, including vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains show that eating them is linked to improved metabolic health and a lower risk of disease.
Do carbohydrates make you fat?
Let’s get this straight – carbs did not cause the obesity epidemic. Overeating did (there is a ton of evidence to prove this).
While it is true that added sugars and refined carbs are linked to increased obesity, the same is not true of fibre-rich, whole-food sources of carbohydrates.
Humans have been eating carbs for thousands of years, in some form or another. The obesity epidemic started around 1980, and the type 2 diabetes epidemic followed soon after.
Blaming new health problems on something that we’ve been eating for a very long time simply doesn’t make sense. Keep in mind that many populations have remained in excellent health while eating a high-carb diet, such as the Okinawans, Kitavans and Asian rice eaters.
What they all had in common was that they ate real, unprocessed foods. However, populations that eat a lot of refined carbohydrates and processed foods tend to be sick and unhealthy.
Key Point: chose fibre-rich whole food sources of carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are NOT essential but can BE incredibly healthy
Many carb-containing foods are healthy and nutritious, such as vegetables and fruits. These foods have all sorts of beneficial compounds and provide a variety of health benefits.
Although it is possible to survive even on a zero-carb diet, it is probably not an optimal choice because you’re missing out on plant foods that science has shown to be beneficial.
The body can function without a single gram of carbohydrate in the diet. It is a myth that the brain needs 130 grams of carbohydrate per day.
When we don’t eat carbs, part of the brain can use ketones for energy. These are made out of fats.
Additionally, the body can produce the little glucose the brain needs via a process called gluconeogenesis. However, just because carbs are not “essential” – that doesn’t mean they can’t be beneficial. Some people experience negative side effects with an extremely low carbohydrate diet, such as lethargy, dizzyiness and a lack of motivation to train.
So how many carbs should I eat?
There is no clear definition of exactly what constitutes a “low carb diet” and what is “low” for one person may not be “low” for the next.
An individual’s optimal carb intake depends on age, gender, body composition, activity levels, personal preference, food culture and current metabolic health.
People who are physically active and have more muscle mass can tolerate a lot more carbs than people who are sedentary. This particularly applies to those who do a lot of high intensity exercise like lifting weights or sprinting.
Metabolic health is also a very important factor. When people get the metabolic syndrome, become obese or get type II diabetes, the rules change. People who fall into this category can’t tolerate the same amount of carbs as those who are healthy and should seek the advice of a professional.
What SPC recommends:
We are all unique and what works for one person may not for the next. It is important to do some self-experimentation and figure out what works for you. If you have a medical condition, then make sure to talk to your doctor before making any changes, because this diet can drastically reduce your need for medication.
If you simply remove the unhealthiest carb sources from your diet, refined wheat and added sugars, then you’ll be well on your way to improved health.
However, to enjoy the full metabolic benefits of low-carbohydrate diets, you also need to restrict other carb sources.
With this in mind, it is possible to categorise most carbs as either “good” or “bad” – but keep in mind that these are just general guidelines. Things are rarely ever black and white in nutrition.
- Vegetables: All of them. It is best to eat a variety of vegetables every day.
- Whole fruits: Apples, bananas, strawberries, etc.
- Legumes: Lentils, kidney beans, peas, etc.
- Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, etc.
- Seeds: Chia seeds, pumpkin seeds.
- Whole grains: Choose grains that are truly whole, as in pure oats, quinoa, brown rice, etc.
- Tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.
People who are trying to restrict carbohydrates need to be careful with the whole grains, legumes, tubers and high-sugar fruit.
- Sugary drinks: Coca cola, Pepsi, Vitaminwater, etc. Sugary drinks are some of the unhealthiest things you can put into your body.
- Fruit juices: Unfortunately, fruit juices may have similar metabolic effects as sugar-sweetened beverages.
- White bread: These are refined carbohydrates that are low in essential nutrients and bad for metabolic health. This applies to most commercially available breads.
- Pastries, cookies and cakes: These tend to be very high in sugar and refined wheat.
- Ice cream: Most types of ice cream are very high in sugar, although there are exceptions.
- Sweets and chocolates: If you’re going to eat chocolate, choose quality dark chocolate.
- Chips and crisps: Whole potatoes are healthy, but chips and crisps are not.
These foods may be fine in moderation for some people, but many will do best by avoiding them as much as possible.
Take Home Message: Carbs in their natural, fibre-rich form are generally healthy. Processed foods with sugar and refined carbs are extremely unhealthy.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution in nutrition.
The “optimal” carbohydrate intake depends on numerous factors, such as age, gender, metabolic health, physical activity, food culture and personal preference.
If you have a lot of weight to lose, or have health problems like metabolic syndrome and/or type 2 diabetes, then you are probably carbohydrate sensitive. In this case, reducing carbohydrate intake can have clear, life-saving benefits.
On the other hand, if you’re just a healthy person trying to stay healthy, then there is probably no reason for you to avoid “carbs” – just stick to whole, single ingredient foods as much as possible. If you are naturally lean and/or highly physically active, then you may even function much better with plenty of carbs in your diet.