The Skinny On Carbs: Are They Diet Friends or Foes?
A registered dietitian takes a stand
Maybe you’re looking to lose a few pounds (or more than a few) and have decided to cut back on carbs, thinking they're the reason for your belly fat or thunder thighs. Or maybe you think they're just plain old unhealthy.
It’s true that certain carbs may deserve their bad rap to some degree. When manufacturers process foods like wheat and rice to improve shelf life and/or taste, they remove the bran and germ, stripping the food of many vitamins and much of its fiber. These processed carbs get quickly broken down in the body into a form of sugar. The resulting sugar spike triggers inflammation — a known culprit behind many chronic diseases and conditions, including Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Unfortunately, many people have come to believe that all carbs are bad. This simply is not the case, says Angela Lemond, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Lemond blames the popularity of extreme low-carb diets — diets that focus on protein and fat — for this thinking, and for leading dieters to believe it’s not possible to lose weight and eat carbs.
Research shows that low-carb diets may help some people lose weight faster than following a low-fat (higher-carb) diet. But a year or two out, studies show the difference in weight loss between the two is only about a pound.
Why carbs are your friend
Lemond refers to carbs as “the energy nutrient” because they provide the body with glucose, which is readily burned for energy. “Carbs provide quick energy, while other nutrients have a more difficult time making it across the blood/brain barrier, which is why people who cut carbs out of their diet complain about brain fog — not being able to think clearly."
"At the end of the day, a good carb has a lot of nutrient quality and can help you to feel fuller longer,” says Lemond, who suggests stocking your cabinets with these high-quality, high-fiber whole grains:
- Brown and/or wild rice
- Corn-based products like taco shells
Note If you have issues with gluten, buckwheat (despite the name) and quinoa are safe to eat.
Adding up the right carbs
If you’re looking to lose weight, avoid refined carbs (think cherry pie and most other baked goods, along with sodas and other sugary drinks, including fruit juice) and include moderate amounts of whole-grain carbs (think beans, fruit and veggies), says Lemond. She points to the Mediterranean diet as an example of a well-balanced weight loss plan. “The Mediterranean diet has lots of whole grains and other good, complex carbs that promote heart health and regulate the body’s sugar,” she says.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calorie intake. So if you consume 2,000 calories a day, you would need to eat between 900 and 1,300 calories a day from carbohydrates, or between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates daily.
A few words about …
Spuds and corn. “Starchy veggies have suffered a lot, which is a shame because they are loaded with fiber, another important component of a healthy diet,” says Lemond. They also have potassium and vitamin C, she says. “Dollar for dollar, I would say the potato has the highest nutrient content for the price. Besides, it’s not the spud that’s bad for you. It’s the fat we top our taters with — bacon, sour cream, too much butter, etc.” As for corn, “when eaten straight up, corn is a nutritious whole grain with antioxidants, fiber and vitamin C.”
Lemond adds that potatoes and corn deliver a healthy one-two punch. “The soluble fiber in these veggies works like a scrub brush — cleaning your arteries; the non-soluble part pulls the cholesterol out of your body and keeps you full longer.”
Pasta. “Pasta is grain-based, so it has iron and is fortified with vitamins, too. Just don’t overdo it, and go for the whole-grain pasta when you can. Only a quarter of your plate should contain grains,” says Lemond, referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s healthy-eating initiative MyPlate. The website gives a clear idea of what proportions should look like, along with lots of healthy eating tips. “Eating too many carbs is how people get into trouble with them,” she warns.
Fruit. Moderate portions of fruit are fine. But fruit can be high in simple sugars, so watch out. “One cup of berries or one small piece of fruit, paired with nuts and seeds, is an energizing snack,” says Lemond. She advocates eliminating juice from the diet. “A piece of fruit has way more fiber and less sugar than juice. Drink water instead."
Bread. Bread need not be completely avoided, but look for healthier options. Ignore the health claims on the front of the package and go straight to the ingredients list. Look for brands that list whole wheat, whole rye or some other whole grain as the very first ingredient.