As a registered dietitian, I get asked about carbs way more regularly than I’m comfortable with saying. As a sports dietitian, I feel pain in my soul every time an athlete tells me that they’re “cutting carbs.” They are definitely the most maligned macronutrient of the most recent years. In fact, there are entire communities on social media that insist that not only are humans not meant to eat carbohydrates, but every day you continue to include them in your diet is a day you are killing yourself and dragging your body closer and closer to diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
You can probably guess a dietitian’s opinion on that, but before we get into why you should absolutely be eating carbs, I want to tell you the main reasons people are afraid of carbs in the first place. And then I’ll tell you exactly why you shouldn’t be afraid of them and why I eat half of my diet in carbs daily while still maintaining optimal health and a physique that I love.
Let’s get into the reasons why people think carbs are the enemy for weight loss…and health in general:
The Most Popular Carbs are High in Calories
People tend to make the massive mistake of grouping “carbs” all into the same group. When I ask people for examples of carbs, I always get the same answers: Bread, bagels, pasta, pizza, rice. I can tell you, I have never had people include fruits, milk, yogurt or beans on their list. To their credit, many people recognize that potatoes and corn are carbs, but they will add the asterisk of “but those are bad for you” while still not recognizing that vegetables are carbohydrates too! But more on that later. The point is, the bagels, pasta and rice are high in calories for the amount of food you get. Just one cup of rice or pasta is 200 calories and your typical pasta dish you get at a restaurant may have anywhere from 2 to 4 cups of pasta alone. Already being at 400-800 calories, that doesn’t even count the side of garlic bread, alfredo sauce and that generous sprinkling of fresh cheese your waiter just added. However, just because the most popular sources of carbs are high calorie, doesn’t mean they alone are responsible for weight gain and certainly doesn’t mean they are bad for you. It just means you should watch how much of them you are eating if weight loss is your goal.
They Are Eating Too Many Refined Carbs
Piggybacking off of the last reason, people just tend to eat too many carbohydrates…and not the nutrient-dense kind. Meaning, a cup of sliced apples is going to be a more nutritious carb source than a cup of potato chips and a steamed sweet potato is going to give you more nutrients as a side dish than two pieces of garlic bread. Does that mean that garlic bread and potato chips are bad? Absolutely not. However, most people’s diets don’t look like that. Carbohydrates tend to dominate our diet when compared to protein and fat. So, when people switch to a “low-carb” diet full of low-carb vegetables and healthy fats, they feel better. Then they blame carbs for the reason they were feeling bad before. This is not the case though. It was just that they were not eating enough vegetables and healthy fats to begin with and both of these foods are packed with the nutrients they were needing to round out their diet.
People Think All Carbs are Sugar
Yes, it’s true. Carbohydrates (except fiber) regardless of the food source from Snickers to blueberries to toast all eventually break down into glucose, a form of sugar. However, not all sugar is created equal. The sugar that comes from a Snickers bar can harm your health when eating it in excess and Snickers bars aren’t a significant source of nutrition. The sugar you get from a blueberry, though, doesn’t cause the same harm. Additionally, along with the fruit sugar you get from fruits, you also get vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. And I mean, come on, when was the last time someone told you they got fat from eating too many apples? The fact is, this myth is just a case of misinterpreted nutritional science.
Carbs are Very Easy to Overeat
Let’s talk about satiety. Whenever you finish eating, you either have a feeling of fullness or you feel satiated. Whenever someone says they feel “full,” they are referring to satiety. To put it another way, you can eat tons of food to the point of feeling painfully full, but still feel unsatisfied. However, when you eat a meal that “hits the spot” and feel just full and satisfied enough to not need seconds, that’s when you’re satiated. Different macros have different impacts on their ability to satiate your hunger. Generally, protein promotes the most satiety and carbohydrates promote the least. This is because the way that carbohydrates are structured chemically means that they don’t hang out in the stomach long and are digested pretty quickly.
While this is great for getting energy to the body when you need it, it means that you can eat a lot more carbs than you can eat protein and fat before you feel satisfied which makes carbs a lot easier to overeat. If you couple that with the fact that the most popular sources of carbs are high in calories, it’s not a far stretch to wonder why people think carbs are destined to sabotage your weight gain. As mentioned, fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates, too, and they are loaded with fiber. Fiber is a special sort of carb that takes the body a while to break down, thus slowing digestion and keeping you fuller longer. So, dietitians recommend eating high-fiber carbohydrates for weight loss and general health as fiber can definitely help you to control your hunger after eating.
When You Cut Them, You Tend to Lose Lots of Weight
You may have heard about someone’s aunt that lost 40 pounds in two weeks by cutting carbs. However, you should know that most of this very rapid weight loss can be attributed to simply water weight, especially when you consider the fact that it’s not possible to lose that much fat in that little time. However, in today’s diet culture, whatever works the fastest is usually what dominates the conversation in terms of weight loss. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you cut carbs, butter, soda, dairy, sugar, meat, if you are not in a calorie deficit, you will not lose weight. That’s why it’s very common for people who follow a low-carb diet to gain their weight right back when they add carbs back in.
The bottom line? There are many plausible reasons why people assume that carbs are the enemy when it comes to weight loss if they aren’t really familiar with the chemistry of nutrition. However, this is simply not true. As long as you watch your portions on the more calorie-dense carbs, make sure you’re including plenty of fruits and veggies in your carb allowance and, honestly, just generally avoid any sort of diet that requires you to restrict any food group, you’ll be just fine.