Carbohydrates have been around since the beginning of time. However, after eating them since the beginning of time, carbohydrates somehow got a really bad rep. “Carbs aren’t healthy.” “Carbs make you gain weight.” So, what’s the deal with carbohydrates? Are there any benefits of carbohydrates, and are they really THAT bad for your health?
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They are present in many of the foods we eat. When you think of carbohydrates, you may immediately think of foods such as breads and pastas, which are also referred to as starches. Let’s break down the carbohydrate group.
Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. They are broken down into two group: complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are starches and fiber. The body breaks down starches into sugar. This is so the molecules are small enough so they can be absorbed. Fiber, however, is not digested by the body.
Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as:
- whole grain products
- brown rice
- whole wheat bread
- fruits and vegetables
- some cereals and oatmeal
Whole grain products are just like the name says – whole. They contain all of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein that naturally occurs in the food.
Simple carbohydrates are sugars. They are processed by the body quicker than complex carbohydrates. Keep in mind that sugar can occur naturally in food, such as in dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. It is best to try to limit the foods and beverages that have added sugar instead of all products that contain natural or added sugar.
Foods with added sugar include:
- Juice from concentrate
- Baked goods
- Energy drinks
- Fruit snacks
Refined products are also simple carbohydrates. They are processed to make a food with a better texture or “mouth feel” or a food that cooks quicker. As a result, many of the nutrients that are naturally occurring in the food are removed.
Refined products include:
- white breads
- white rice
- white pasta
- some cereals
If you’re a diabetic, you’ll want to choose whole grain products over refined or enriched products to have better control over your blood sugar levels and to minimize spikes that refined and enriched products have the potential to cause.
What are sources of carbohydrates?
Many foods contain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates may be in foods that you never thought of. These foods include:
- cow’s milk and plant based dairy products
- starchy vegetables
Some of these foods may have a higher nutritional value than others. It’s important to read your food labels when possible. Choose foods that are more nutrient dense and limit foods that are more calorie dense. Nutrient dense foods are packed with nutrition and calorie dense foods have more calories and less nutrients.
What are the benefits of carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates provide the body with energy. Depending on the source, they also provide:
- Protein : For building muscle
- B vitamins : To make energy, red blood cells
- Zinc: Immune function, building protein
- Iron: Transport oxygen, red blood cell production
- Magnesium: Blood pressure, blood sugar, muscle contraction
- Fiber : Constipation, diarrhea, help control weight, cholesterol and blood sugar levels
- Folate: Red blood cell production, prevention of spinal bifida
What happens if you remove carbohydrates from your diet?
Eliminating carbohydrates from the diet may pose a risk for several vitamin and mineral deficiencies. There is also the potential for muscle loss due to weight loss and not eating enough protein.
The body may go into ketosis, which is the premise for the ketogenic diet. When you follow the ketogenic diet, you are eating a VERY low carbohydrate diet. Since you’re hardly eating any carbohydrates, the body turns fat into ketones, and uses ketones as its energy source.
Little fun fact: the ketogenic diet is a nutrition therapy used to treat people that have epilepsy. Those that have been prescribed the ketogenic diet are closely followed by their Doctor and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist that specializes in the ketogenic diet.
Do carbohydrates make you gain weight?
Carbohydrates are not the main source of weight gain.
If you eat or drink enough of anything, regardless of how healthy or less healthy it is, you have the potential to gain weight or have other things happen.
When my sister was pregnant with my nephew (her first child) she had at least a medium sized bowl of cut up fruit every day from (at the time) Waldbaum’s. Long story short, her doctor told her to cut back on the fruit. My nephew was born 9 lbs 4 oz.
My father, who has typ 2 diabetes (and thinks he knows so much since he has a daughter that’s a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist), told me a story about one of his client’s employees. This person was telling him about how they went on an all fruit diet to lose weight. The person’s doctor told them to stop this “all fruit diet” because their a1c went quite a bit. After they stopped the “all fruit diet” their a1c went back down.
Not to say that eating fruit is bad. The benefits of eating fruit definitely outweigh the risks. Like the old saying goes, “everything in moderation.”
Which carbohydrates should you choose?
Here are some tips on making healthier choices when choosing your carbohydrates:
- Aim for 5 cups per day of fruits and vegetables
- Aim for low-fat or fat-free dairy
- Try to make at least half of your grains whole grains
- Limit the amount of added sugar in your foods and drinks as much as you can
Carbohydrates have a place in a healthy, varied diet. Carbohydrates alone are not the cause of weight gain, however, the types of carbohydrates you eat, or drink, may be. Remember to aim for sources of complex carbohydrates and limit foods with added sugar.