By Kim Duke, NETA & AAFA Certified Trainer
Carbs are highly controversial these days. The dietary guidelines suggest that we get about half of our calories from carbohydrates. On the other hand, some claim that carbs cause obesity and type 2 diabetes, and that most people should be avoiding them.
There are good arguments on both sides, 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.
What Are Carbs?
Carbs, or carbohydrates, are molecules that have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. In nutrition, “carbs” refers to one of the three macronutrients. (The other two are protein and fat.)
Dietary carbohydrates can be split into three main categories:
• Sugars: Sweet, short-chain carbohydrates found in foods. Examples are glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose.
• Starches: Long chains of glucose molecules, which eventually get broken down into glucose in the digestive system.
• Fiber: Humans can not digest fiber, although the bacteria in the digestive system can make use of some of them.
The main purpose of carbs in the diet is to provide energy. Most carbs get broken down or transformed into glucose, which can be used as energy. Carbs can also be turned into fat (stored energy) for later use.
Fiber is an exception. It does not provide energy directly, but it does feed the friendly bacteria in the digestive system. These bacteria can use the fiber to produce fatty acids that some of our cells can use as energy.
Sugar alcohols are also classified as carbohydrates. They taste sweet, but usually don’t provide many calories.
Bottom line: Carbs are one of the three macronutrients. The main types of dietary carbohydrates are sugars, starches and fiber.
“Whole” vs “Refined” 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” versus “complex,” I personally find “whole” versus “refined” to make more sense.
Whole carbs are unprocessed and contain the fiber found naturally in the food, while refined carbs have been processed and had the natural fiber 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.
These carbs 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 food. 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.
Bottom Line: Not all carbs are created equal. Refined carbs are associated with obesity and metabolic diseases, but unprocessed carbohydrate foods are very healthy.
However, it makes no sense to demonize all carbohydrate-containing foods because of the health effects of their processed counterparts. To say carbs are the cause of obesity is just purely myth. 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.
Bottom Line: Humans have been eating carbs since long before the obesity epidemic, and there are many examples of populations that have remained in excellent health while eating diets high in carbs.
How to Make The Right Choices
As a general rule, carbs that are in their natural, fiber-rich form are healthy, while those that have been stripped of their fiber are not.
If it’s a whole, single ingredient food, then it’s probably a healthy food for most people, no matter what the carbohydrate content is.