It used to be that fat was America's dietary enemy. People blamed fat for heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Now it seems we have moved on to a new target: Carbohydrates.
Carbs have gotten a bad rap in large part because sugar is a carbohydrate. The message is 'eliminate carbohydrates' rather than distinguishing between which carbohydrates belong in the diet and which are better left on the shelf.
Carbohydrates: The Basics
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for our bodies. They not only provide your body with the energy it needs, but natural food sources of carbohydrates are also a good source of critical nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin C and fiber. This macronutrient is so important, health authorities recommend 50 percent of your daily calories come from carbohydrates.
When you eat carbohydrate-rich foods, your body can use them right away for energy, or store them for later use. But it's important to note that not all carbs are created equal.
Carbohydrates come in two types: Simple and complex.
- Simple or refined carbohydrates are sugar. While some of these occur naturally in milk and fruit, most simple carbohydrates in our diets are added sugars found in soda, juice, cookies, cake and candy.
- Complex carbohydrates include starch and fiber. Sources of starch included starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn), beans and legumes (black beans, pinto beans) and grains (wheat, rice, oats, rye, barley) used in bread and pasta. Grains can be broken down further into “whole” and “refined.” The whole grain includes all 3 parts of the grain – the fiber-rich bran, nutrient-rich germ, and the starchy endosperm. The refined grain is stripped of the bran and germ, leaving the starchy endosperm. Refined grains are often used in sweets and packaged snack foods. Fiber is the indigestible part of the plant (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds). Fiber helps keep you regular and keeps you feeling full, longer.
Carbs As A Dietary Villain
The idea that carbohydrates may prevent people from achieving their health and wellness goals began with the Atkins diet, a high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet plan developed by cardiologist Robert Atkins in the 1960's. In theory, the approach makes sense. Eliminating unnecessary calories from soda, juice, sweets and processed snacks is good for the body.
If you follow a low-carb diet, you'll eat less bread, pasta, and fewer sweets and more vegetables and lean protein. In most cases, including popular plans like the ketogenic diet, you'll take in fewer calories and lose weight. But ditching all carbohydrates is not only hard to sustain, it could also have dangerous consequences.
When you eliminate carbohydrates from the diet, you're left with non-starchy vegetables and protein. Following this type of restricted diet means fewer calories — and fewer vital nutrients. Without complex carbohydrates, you'll miss out on fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants.
Focus On Healthy Carbohydrates
Unless you're under the supervision of a physician, it's never a good idea to nix entire food groups from your diet. Carbohydrates are healthful foods and the best of the lot boast plenty of fiber. If you want to lose weight, it makes sense to restrict soda, juices, cookies, cake and other sugar and refined carbohydrates and focus instead on the following carbohydrates:
- Whole grains
- Beans and legumes
Your best bet for nutritional success: Choose healthy carbohydrates, reduce overall calorie intake and increase physical activity. If you're not sure whether you've selected a healthy carb, check the nutrition label for carbohydrate information, including total carbohydrates, dietary fiber and sugars and the ingredient list.
Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is the director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Learn more about Bethany.