The diet industry has been doing you wrong by being wishy-washy about carbs. Despite what you may have heard, carbohydrates aren’t a no-no.
So, stop feeling guilty for noshing a much-needed macronutrient and focus on smart carb consumption strategies to adequately fuel your beautiful bod and brain.
We need carbs to:
- energize us
- deliver vitamins and minerals
- provide fiber for fullness and regularity
- improve gut health
- help cognitive function
“Healthy carbohydrates that’re minimally processed, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes, have been found to positively contribute to heart, gut, and brain health,” says Katey Davidson, a registered dietitian and founder of Taste of Nutrition.
“By incorporating healthy carbohydrates into our diet that provide us with important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, we have nothing to fear.”
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients, meaning they’re a vital part of our diet, just like protein and those tasty healthy fats. We rely on carbs as our main source of energy, whether dancing at a club with pals or sitting at a desk mulling over a spreadsheet.
But we have different types of carbs to choose from.
We can guess that cauliflower is healthier than a cronut. But why? Well, one item is a whole, real food, and the other is a sweet, processed pastry. Another reason has to do with how some carbs can make our blood sugar levels a bit wonky.
Sugars are simple carbs, and our bodies digest and process them quickly
“Eaten in excess, [sugars] cause an up-and-down effect, leading to unstable blood sugar levels,” Davidson says. If you eat that midafternoon cronut, you’ll get a fast perk-up, likely followed by a slump that may send you staggering back to the bakery.
What are simple carbohydrates?
- table sugar
- brown sugar
- high fructose corn syrup
- milk (lactose)
- fruit (fructose)
With that info, you might be tempted to label simple carbs as bad or forbidden, but that’s not always the case.
“While we want to limit simple sugars added to foods such as soda, juices, and processed foods,” Davidson says, “simple sugars can help us get a quick energy source.”
You might need to reach for a simple sugar to give you a fast boost before an intense workout or during a long one if it’s been a while since your last meal. Think of the runner who slurps a nutrition gel or downs a sports drink at a race.
Plus, some naturally occurring sugars are in foods that are good for you. Milk has proven health benefits and fruits, as long as you eat the whole fruit, provide both simple and complex carbohydrates. Drinking plain fruit juice, sans fiber, is another unhealthy story.
Stick to a whole apple or a banana to make sure you’re getting fiber, a valuable complex carb — and another you should get to know.
Starches and fiber are complex carbohydrates
Fiber helps us get rid of waste.
- Insoluble fiber bulks up our stool and collects debris along the way. We get our insoluble fiber from whole grains and vegetables.
- Soluble fiber attracts water and “creates a gel-type substance in our gut,” Davidson says. This substance moves along our digestive tract and binds with cholesterol and fat to be eliminated.
“Because of their structure, they take much longer for our bodies to digest and have limited effect on our blood sugar levels,” Davidson says.
- whole fruit
- whole grains
- whole wheat products
Fiber’s benefits go beyond encouraging trips to the loo. For one, fiber makes you feel full.
So, if you choose the cauliflower instead of that sugar-laden cronut, you’ll feel satisfied longer.
Follow these two basic guidelines for downing a diet of healthy carb choices:
1. Choose whole foods rather than processed
Ditch the fruit juice and opt for the piece of fruit. “Whole fruit contains fiber, which helps to slow digestion and therefore minimizes fluctuating blood sugar,” Davidson says.
Choose whole wheat or whole grain, too. “Refined carbohydrates are processed in a way that removes some or all of the grain’s original fiber,” she adds.
2. Combine macronutrients
Eat carbs with some protein and fat whenever possible. For example, Davidson recommends pairing Greek yogurt with fruit to get protein, fat, and both simple and complex carbs.
“The protein in the yogurt will help slow digestion and provide you with important amino acids needed for muscle growth,” she explains. “The fruit gives you the quick energy your body is looking for while also providing antioxidants and fiber. Finally, the fat is needed for taste as well as cell structure and development.”
Combining macronutrients has the added benefit of keeping carb portions in check.
Our cells require a steady supply of glucose (sugar) to do their work and keep us functioning. Two hormones, insulin and glucagon, manage our blood glucose. We can help support our endocrine system by energizing with carbs that don’t whack out our blood glucose level.
Crash course: The carb-energy cycle
- When you eat a digestible carb, your body turns it into glucose and dumps it into your bloodstream.
- A rising blood glucose level signals your pancreas to produce insulin.
- Insulin tells your cells to open the gates and let glucose in. Your cells will use it if they need immediate energy, like if you’ve started an indoor cycling class. But if you’re just chillin’, your muscle and liver cells will store glucose as glycogen to be used later.
- Eventually, your blood glucose level starts to go back down.
- A lowering level sends a different message to your pancreas, this time to make glucagon.
- Glucagon then tells your muscles and liver to release any glycogen they’ve been storing back into your bloodstream to be used for energy.
Eating refined or too many simple carbs can turn this process into a roller-coaster ride you can’t seem to get off.
Fast-digesting carbs spike your blood sugar and then crash it, leaving you feeling drained and craving more carbs for another energy fix. Long-term overconsumption of refined carbs can also lead to:
We tend to think of carb intake as a requirement for physical performance. The night before the big day, a triathlete wants a plate of pasta to pump up her muscles with glycogen.
But our brains need those delicious carbs just as much as our quads do. One study shows that low-carb diets can impair memory, learning, and other cognitive functions.
By depriving your mind of carbs, “you may experience a type of brain fog and have trouble paying attention,” Davidson says.
However, some people with certain brain disorders, such as epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease, have reduced symptoms on low-carb or ketogenic diets. Talk to your doctor to find out if a low-carb strategy would benefit or hurt you.
Carbohydrates get a bad reputation in the diet and nutrition industry because they’re easy to grab and overeat, especially the unhealthy kind.
“North Americans tend to have a diet [too high in] refined carbohydrates, since most prepared foods contain added sugars and are made with white flours,” Davidson says.
Even though we know refined carbs can wreak havoc on our bodies, we may reach for them anyway out of strong cravings and comfort, thanks to their abundance of sugar.
“Since our bodies love sweet foods,” Davidson says, “this sends pleasure signals to the reward center of our brains and basically tells the brain, ‘This is great.’”
With refined carbs, which are simple, the pleasure effect is nearly immediate. And the inevitable sugar crash comes quickly too. That’s why we often want more. If we’re sad or stressed, we may self-medicate by repeatedly piling on the carbs, shows one study.
Opting for whole foods as opposed to processed items and eating carbs mixed with protein and fat will help mitigate overeating by making you feel fuller longer and keeping your blood sugar on an even keel.
Carbs aren’t the enemy. You need them for energy. Remember that fruits and veggies are carbs, and we know those provide us with valuable micronutrients.
It’s the fake foods we want to flake on. Love pizza? Don’t say bye to the pie. Just opt for a cauliflower crust, fresh buffalo mozzarella, and your favorite toppings. You got this.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.