With a seemingly endless array of fad diets on the market, and so much conflicting information from “experts,” it can be hard to get a handle on what it means to eat healthy.
Once upon a time, the prevailing dietary advice was to eat plenty of carbohydrates, and to be careful about fats. Then, starting in the late 60s, a few diet books appeared on the scene that turned the prevailing wisdom on its head. Eat as much protein and fat as you want, while severely limiting your intake of carbohydrates, if you want to lose weight, they said. Many people who were able to follow these diets did, in fact, lose weight, and the diets grew in popularity, spawning a chain of similar programs.
Today, even among many people who have never officially been on a low-carbohydrate diet, carbs have gotten a bad name. Low-carb versions of many food items — bread, pasta, etc. — have appeared on the market, presumably to cater to people on low-carbohydrate diets, and this has contributed to the idea that carbohydrates are a bad thing — maybe even as bad as sweets or fried food.
The truth is actually much more complicated. Along with protein and fat, carbohydrates are one of the body’s three sources of energy. Of the three, carbohydrates are where we get most of our energy. Our bodies convert them into glucose, or blood sugar. Low-carb diets work by depriving the body of this energy source, forcing it to convert stored fat into energy. This is actually a mild form of starvation called ketosis, and it’s controversial. Some doctors are concerned that ketosis causes undue strain on the body, especially the liver, while others argue that the risks of ketosis are overstated, and certainly less harmful than the supposed health risks associated with obesity.
Regardless of body type, though, all people require some carbohydrates to survive, and creating confusion around a nutrient that is heavily represented in the three largest sections of the food pyramid won’t help people to adopt healthier eating choices.
A much more useful practice is to switch out the kinds of carbohydrates Americans most commonly eat — sweets, starches, and breads or pastas made from easily digestible processed white flour — in favor of healthier carbohydrates found in vegetables, fruits, and baked goods made from whole grain flours.
The body breaks sugary, starchy, or processed foods down into sugar at a much faster rate than carbohydrates from healthier sources. That means they get stored as fat more quickly if the energy they provide isn’t used up through exercise. More complex carbohydrates release energy at a slower rate, making them a more efficient source of energy. Easily digested carbohydrates also create blood sugar spikes, and subsequent crashes, which can make you feel lethargic over time.
In addition, fruits, veggies, and whole grain breads contain fiber, which contributes to health. Soluble fiber “cleans” fats from your digestive system, lowering level of low-density lipoprotein, also known as LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. It can also regulate blood sugar and help you feel fuller longer after eating.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight, lower your blood pressure or cholesterol, keep a tight reign on your blood sugar, or just maintain your current good health, cutting carbs isn’t the answer. Instead, opt for more whole, natural foods. The closer a food is to its source — namely, the farm or orchard where it was grown — the better it is for you, no matter how many carbs it contains.