In Defense of Carbs
“I have been cutting my carbs”, “I am avoiding carbs”, “I don’t eat carbs” – these are all things I frequently hear from conscientious dieters. “After all,” they say, “aren’t carbs bad for me?” Thank you Dr. Atkins for leaving people so confused and worried about this misunderstood macronutrient. Contrary to popular belief, carbs are not bad for you; in fact, they play a crucial role in appetite regulation and maintaining a healthy weight!
Today’s post is in defense of carbohydrates. We will explore carbohydrates, why our bodies NEED them and I will leave you with final thoughts to put it all together.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates (noun): Any one of various substances providing the body with energy and are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
- Starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas, corn, squash)
- Whole grains (bread, pasta, cereals, quinoa, rice, bulgur, wheat berries etc.)
- Pulses (beans, chickpeas and lentils)
- Milk (sweetened yogurts, lactose is a sugar)
- Fruits (fresh, frozen, fried fruits)
However, not all carbs are created equal. There are “less healthy” carbohydrates, or “simple sugars” that do not contribute nutritional value and should be limited. These include: pop or juices, cookies, candies, chips, high fructose corn syrup, processed foods, granola bars, etc.
Why We NEED Carbohydrates:
1. The body’s main (and preferred) source of fuel or energy!
- Carbs are broken down into glucose (sugar) before being absorbed into the blood stream for energy.
- All of our body tissues and cells use glucose for functioning (ie. kidneys, brain, heart, muscle etc).
- A diet low in carbs can lead to a lack of energy during exercise, early fatigue and delayed recovery. Fat and protein are harder to turn into energy than carbs, which means you may feel low on energy during your exercise session.
2. Carbohydrates preserve muscle mass:
- Since carbs are the preferred energy source, without them, our bodies break down protein from our muscles.
- Short-term weight loss on a very carb restricted diet comes from loss of muscle mass and loss of water.
- Long-term weight loss requires preserving muscle mass to boost your metabolism. Lower muscle mass means your body requires fewer calories to maintain your weight or weight loss.
3. Carbohydrates help to control appetite and cravings:
- Without minimum carbohydrates, we are prone to low energy, irritability and cravings for simple sugars (vending machine snacks).
- I advise clients that if they are hungry, think of carbohydrates (paired with a protein – like apple and cheese string) as a way of boosting your energy to avoid cravings or feeling “hangry” (hungry + angry).
4. Carbohydrates contain important vitamins and minerals:
- Carbohydrate foods contain vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and magnesium.
5. Wholesome carbohydrates help you meet your fibre requirements:
- Fibre helps maintain blood sugar, reduces cholesterol, and supports good bowel function.
- Research shows diets high in fibre are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
- Fibre rich foods also curb appetite and stabilize blood sugars, which means fewer cravings and a more sustainable diet!
Carbohydrates are not the enemy; especially carbohydrates that are loaded with fibre and vitamins and minerals. Processed carbohydrates are a different story and if these types of sugars can be reduced in your diet that is a good thing!
Remember that the best diet is the one you can stick to! If you find yourself dabbling with carb restrictions and falling into “yo-yo dieting” then you may need to allow yourself to accept that carbohydrates can fit as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Carbohydrate requirements will vary from person to person depending on gender, age and physical activity level. If you are uncertain how much to eat in order to give your body enough energy to sustain your physical activity and lifestyle, speak with a dietitian.
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Andrea is a Registered Dietitian and owner of Dietetic Directions, a nutritional counselling and education company. Andrea’s mission is to inspire clients through motivation and guidance to achieve life-long health behaviour changes. She has taken continuing education in the areas of Food Allergy and Food Hypersensitivity, Health Research Literacy, Motivational Interviewing & Coaching for Behaviour Change.