Eating the ‘right’ amount of carbs may lower risk of an early death, but the quality of carbs we eat could be more important than the quantity.
It seems like every week there’s a new study weighing in on whether certain parts of our diet — looking at you, wine and chocolate researchers — are healthy or not.
While there are some obvious culprits that can limit our lifespans (such as sugar and alcohol) others seem to exist in a dietary gray area.
An obvious contender in that category is carbohydrates, or, as they’re referred to in modern dietary lexicon, carbs.
A new study published in The Lancet Public Health suggests that neither a no-carb diet, nor a high-carb diet, are ideal if you’re trying to live a long and healthy life.
The study observed 15,428 people in the United States and found “moderate” carb consumers — with carbs accounting for 50 to 55 percent of their caloric intake — had the lowest risk of mortality.
The researchers confirmed those findings in a meta-analysis of studies that involved more than 432,000 people in 20 countries. It also found that not all low-carb diets offer the same long-term results.
Those who ate more animal-based proteins had a greater risk of mortality compared with people who ate more plant-based proteins and fats from foods such as vegetables, legumes, and nuts.
“These findings bring together several strands that have been controversial. Too much and too little carbohydrate can be harmful, but what counts most is the type of fat, protein, and carbohydrate,” Dr. Walter Willett, the study’s co-author and professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement accompanying the research.
Experts not involved in the research weren’t blown away by the findings, and at least one was skeptical of the over-assumptive headlines that followed with it.
Brian Bender, PhD, a certified nutritionist and co-founder of myintakepro.com, says his initial reaction to the study was that its findings were not particularly surprising.
“Decades of research keep coming back to notion that, at the population level, ‘moderate’ levels of consumption for nearly all dietary components results in the best health outcomes,” he told Healthline. “Extreme diets that focus too heavily on one or another nutrient rarely produce optimal long-term results.”
Bender says that for very specific individuals, these extreme diets may help — and future tests may be able to provide this level of personalization — but “moderation across the board seems to reign supreme.”
Dr. Tro Kalayjian, a weight loss and nutrition physician based in New York state, said because the study was an epidemiologic population-based nutritional study based on food-frequency questionnaires and didn’t test a particular diet, it is subject to many confounding factors.
“Nobody in that study was ever put on a specific diet to assess the outcomes of a particular nutritional approach,” he told Healthline. “It broadly looks at the population.”
Kalayjian is quick to point out that the low-carb arm of the study had participants with much higher rates of smoking, alcohol use, obesity, and sedentary behavior.
“In other words, the groups are merely comparing a healthy group to a less healthy group and diet is merely a result of this difference and not a cause,” he said.
He warned that headlines that proclaimed that low-carb diets performed worse were misleading.
But, just like summarizing that all carbs are either bad or good for everyone, not all carbs are created equal. Some can help power vital body functions, while others are just downright useless.
Kristin Koskinen, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Washington state, says when formulating meal plans for her clients, which emphasize whole foods, the carbohydrate load typically falls at around 50 to 55 percent.
“Diets that are too high in carbs tend to drive metabolic diseases,” she said. “Diets that are too low in carbs tend to be deficient in fiber and micronutrients, which compromises long-term health.”
Koskinen says a healthy meal plan focuses on nutrient density, which includes whole plant foods — including vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains — with lots of fiber, something she said is “sorely lacking in the standard American diet.”
“An important point to emphasize is that the fibers that come from eating a wide variety of plant foods, feed the healthy bacteria that reside in the gut,” she said. “The research emphasizing importance of the microbiome is extensive and indicates its role in not only gut health, but obesity, neurologic disease, and heart health.”
Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York state, says when addressing carbs in a person’s diet, it’s quality over quantity.
“Given the wide use of simple carbs from sources such as highly processed added sugars to packaged foods, it’s fair to associate increased carb intake with health risk,” she told Healthline.
She says complex carbs, which are high in fiber, are key for blood sugar control and weight management, while simple carbs pose a multitude of health risks when consumed excessively. She, too, recommends eating plant-based proteins and fats, calling them “nutrition powerhouses.”
“There are many reasons as to why this is true, one being that when consumed as minimally processed whole food sources, these foods contain naturally occurring intact fibers and other nutrients that benefit health,” she said.
Kalayjian says the best place to start cutting carbs is pasta, bread, and any products with flour. He suggests replacing them with meat, fish, eggs, dairy, berries, and non-starchy vegetables (i.e., potatoes, etc.). He says making these switches is easier than people realize, but, like learning any new skill or lifestyle change, “it takes support and a little coaching.”
If you’re trying to do your best at coaching yourself, one simple way is avoiding the center aisles at your grocery store, typically where the majority of packaged foods live. Around the outside are fresh foods, such as lean proteins and lots of produce.
Bender recommends eating fewer packaged foods, because they often contain unhealthy quantities of sugar.
“One of the big sources of sugar is still sugar-sweetened beverages,” he said. “Sodas and fruit-juices are often very sugar-dense, so cutting these out of your diet will help you improve your carb quality, too.”
That replacement is probably the simplest: just drink water.
While some experts question the accuracy of the findings from the latest study, a moderate approach to carb consumption still seems to be the healthiest choice.
However, simply counting carbs may not be the best area in which to focus.
Instead, experts agree that prioritizing carb quality over carb quantity is ideal for anyone working to improve their diet.