Carbs have gotten a bad reputation over the past several years. Countless fad diets have come out telling people that they need to reduce their carbohydrate intake in order to lose weight. Low carb is the tagline of the day on cookbooks, recipes, and products found on supermarket shelves. Does this mean that carbs make you fat? Well, it’s not a short answer and a topic that requires some explaining, so let’s get to it. The truth about carbs.
What Are Macronutrients?
Let’s start with the basics, shall we? To understand carbohydrates, we need to first understand macronutrients. What are macronutrients? Macronutrients are the 3 components present in all of our food sources; protein, carbohydrates and fat. Each food we eat contains these nutrients in differing ratios. For example, one cup of carrots contains approximately 12.5g of carbs, 1.2g of protein and less than a gram of fat. Whereas, half an avocado contains approximately 6g of carbs, 1g of protein and 10g of fat. We need each of these nutrients in amounts much larger than micronutrients like iron and calcium. Thus, macro vs micro.
What Is a Carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are essential nutrients that your body needs in order to keep working. The role of carbohydrates in the body is to provide fuel to our brain, organs, muscles and cells. They are the cleanest burning fuel source our bodies can use. They are made up of short chains which are sugars, long chains which are starches and indigestible components we refer to as fibre. Our bodies have evolved to easily break down carbohydrates into glucose, which we use as energy to keep the engines running.
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
This is an important point to discuss in order to get to the truth of the matter. People seem to lump all carbohydrate sources together when making these sweeping statements like ‘carbs are bad for you’ or ‘carbs make you fat’. However, nutrition is rarely as simple as these sweeping generalizations would have you believe.
Let’s discuss the difference between refined carbohydrates and unrefined carbohydrates. Refined carbs are those that come from refined and processed foods. For example, pastries and baked goods made from white flours, or soda and candies made from white sugar and other sweeteners. Basically, refined carbs are those carb-laden foods that no longer resemble anything naturally occurring. They are highly processed and as a result, most of the nutrients and fibre have been stripped away. Their carbohydrate content comes mainly from simple sugars that break down quickly and cause your blood sugar to spike.
On the other hand, unrefined carbohydrates are those that naturally occur in nature. These are the carbs you find in fruit, vegetables, whole intact grains, legumes and starchy vegetables like corn, squash and potatoes. These are unprocessed, free of additives and still have the nutrient profile that nature intended. They also tend to be lower in sugar and higher in fibre, so they don’t cause your blood sugar to spike the way refined carbs do.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that one of these is far superior to the other in terms of nutrition (hint: it’s not the group containing soda and candy). This is why sweeping generalizations about carbs as a whole are absolutely false. These two are very different in composition and how they react in your body. It’s like comparing apples to doughnuts, they just aren’t the same.
No matter how you slice it, refined carbs are essentially worthless calories and should be avoided in any healthy diet. While unrefined carbs contain many important nutrients, come with numerous health benefits and can be a big part of a healthy diet.
But Carbs Make You Fat!
Well, if that’s the case, someone forgot to tell those lean and healthy populations living in the blue zones. If you haven’t heard of the blue zones before, these are populations with the lowest rates of disease and an average lifespan much longer than those of us in the western world. One example is the Okinawans of Japan, who are among the longest living populations on the planet. Their diets are made up of predominantly plants, with a high percentage of their calories coming from unrefined carbohydrates like grains, tubers and beans. You know what these populations don’t have much access to? Processed foods like refined carbs. You see where I’m going with this?
Unrefined carbs do not make you fat. It’s what you do to those unrefined carbs that can have a negative impact on your waistline. For example, let’s look at the potato. Some people will claim that potatoes are bad for you. Well, let’s see, 100 grams of white potato contains about 77 calories, 2g of protein, 17g of carbohydrate and almost no fat. But, when was the last time you saw someone eat a plain potato? Nope, we tend to eat baked potatoes buried in animal fats from butter, sour cream and cheese. Or, we slice them up and deep fry them to oblivion. The resulting nutrition panel is far from benign. That same 100g of potato, now in french fry form, contains about 312 calories, 3g of protein, 41g of carbohydrates and 15g of fat. It’s not the potato my friend, it’s what you do to it.
Do They Really, Though?
Our bodies are pretty efficient machines. They like to get the most out of our food for the least amount of effort. So, when you eat a high carb meal that’s also high in fat, like a baked potato topped with butter and sour cream or cheese and bacon, your body will get to work on using the carbs for energy, and it will take the fat that accompanied those carbs and store it. It basically says, ‘I’ve got energy here to use, AND energy reserves (fat) that I don’t need to waste energy converting, pack those away for later.’
Those advocating low carb diets will argue that excess carbs will be converted to fat. However, converting carbohydrates to fat for storage is a lot of work, and you lose at least ¼ of the energy from those carbs in the process. Instead, your body typically burns off excess carbs as heat. It’s more efficient, and since you gave it lots of fat for storage, it’s not desperate enough to make that conversion. It’s not the carbs making you fat my friend, it’s the fat!
Carbs and Type 2 Diabetes
What about those suffering from diabetes though? They are constantly being told to limit their carbs in order to keep their blood sugar under control. This gives people the mistaken impression that carbs or sugars cause type 2 diabetes. This is not the case. Insulin resistance, which is the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes, is actually caused by excess fat in the blood and muscle cells. This excess fat blocks signalling pathways, which makes insulin much less effective at getting blood glucose into the muscle cells for storage, so instead, it’s stuck in the bloodstream causing elevated blood-glucose levels. A more in-depth explanation of this process can be found here: What Causes Insulin Resistance?
Essentially, the diet that is being recommended to type 2 diabetics in an effort to control their blood sugar, only ensures that they will continue to be reliant on their medications. The way to reverse insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, is not by eating fewer carbohydrates, because that forces you to eat more fat and protein. Remember, there are only 3 macronutrients, so when you lower one, you have to increase the other two. Instead, multiple studies have shown that both insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes can be reversed with a low-fat, high carb, plant-based diet. This, over time, clears the excess fat from the bloodstream, making your body more sensitive to the effects of insulin. Participants in these studies showed a marked improvement in blood sugar control in as little as 1-2 weeks on the diet. It wasn’t the carbs after all.
Health Benefits of Unrefined Carbohydrates
So now that we’ve covered some common misconceptions, let’s talk about some of the health benefits of unrefined carbohydrates in your diet.
The great thing about unrefined carbs is that they tend to be high in fibre. Fibre is such an important part of a healthy diet, and yet, the majority of people in the western world don’t eat enough of it. People need to quit worrying so much about where they’ll get their protein and have a lot more concern about where their fibre is going to come from (spoiler alert, it’s not from animal products).
Eating a diet high in fibre can keep you regular and maintain good bowel health. It also helps to lower blood cholesterol and keep blood sugar levels under control. A fibre rich diet has also been shown to aid in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Fibre tends to be quite filling, so it fills you up before you can eat too much, and it keeps you feeling satisfied for longer periods of time.
Carbohydrates are also mood boosting. Have you ever noticed that a friend or co-worker seemed to be extra cranky while on a low-carb diet? This isn’t just a coincidence, a lack of carbs in the diet can lead to a reduction in serotonin levels. Serotonin is the feel-good chemical associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. This is why high carb diets are linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression. Now, eat high carb while also eating plant-based and you’ll improve your antioxidant levels, which also fights depression. That’s a lot to feel good about. It’s also worth noting that diets deficient in carbohydrates can cause headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, nausea, and constipation, among other symptoms.
The Bottom Line
I hope I’ve helped to clear up any confusion for you and perhaps debunk some myths and misconceptions in the process. The devil is in the details, my friend. Carbs aren’t inherently bad for you. It’s all about the quality of carbohydrates you choose to consume and how you prepare them.
There was a lot of information I wanted to cover but I ended up with too much for one post. So, come back next week, I’ll be doing another post on how to choose the good carbs that will promote your health goals and how to recognize the bad carbs that will stand in your way.
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Feature image credit : Photo by Byrev via Pixabay