In a newsletter I wrote almost five years ago, I flat out told my readers “carbs are bad.” I had no reasoning for it, honestly. Mostly because I was believing this lie that carbs are bad and “going keto” is good and that’s the only way to improve your health. Little did I know that carbs are in practically everything, and giving up carbohydrates in your diet is almost impossible. And little did I know my husband would continue mocking me for writing that still to this day…
I’ve learned quite a bit about food and health over the past few years, particularly in regards to nutrition and why eating all three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) is important for your health. While I do plan on diving into the particulars of each macronutrient and why they are important for your body, I think it’s best to start with the one that people feel most hesitant towards: carbohydrates.
As we established, toxic diet culture wants you to believe that carbs really are bad. Going keto and eating a mere 20 grams of carbs a day is the “ideal” for losing weight and getting healthy. Yet there are so many negative ramifications of such a crazy crash diet. If you’re not providing your body with this major source of energy on a regular basis, sure you may lose weight (any crazy restriction will do that) but it won’t last. You’ll feel tired and irritable, and you’ll be missing out on all of the incredible health benefits that carbohydrates provide for our bodies.
Maybe you don’t believe me quite yet, and that’s okay—it took me a while to break out of this toxic mindset before. That’s why I also spoke to my friend Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, and author of the book The Sports Nutrition Playbook, who gave me some extra insight into why eating carbs really is good for you!
Carbs give us energy.
“Carbohydrates play a variety of roles in your body and serve as one of your body’s main sources of energy,” says Goodson. “In fact, your central nervous system and brain run off glucose.”
When we eat carbohydrates, they are digested into glucose and go into our bloodstream, which gives us that energy boost we are looking for. It’s also the reason why you may crave carb-heavy foods when you’re tired—your body is looking for a quick energy source, and carbs can provide it.
It’s also the reason why carbohydrates make for a great workout companion.
“Carbohydrates also help fuel exercise, especially more intense workouts, and they help to keep your blood sugar stable and thus you alive and functioning throughout the day,” says Goodson.
However, it’s also important to note that because the process of digesting carbs can happen quickly, you’ll feel pretty hungry after. That’s why it’s good to pair your carbohydrate with a filling protein or healthy fat—like nut butter on toast, or cheese with crackers.
“People that move more often (aka have active jobs, play sports, exercise a lot, etcetera) need more carbohydrate because they burn more,” says Goodson. “Think of it like a car. The more you drive your car around, the more often you need to put gas in it. If it’s just sitting there, you don’t have to put as much gas in it. The same concept with the body, while everyone needs carbohydrates, people that move more need more to keep their body fueled.”
Carbs provide most of the fiber in your diet.
When I went ultra low-carb for a while, I didn’t realize that I was also significantly cutting my fiber intake as well. Fiber is an important nutrient that comes from most complex carbohydrates (more on that term in a bit).
Why is fiber important? For a lot of reasons. The main one is that it helps with your metabolism, your gut health, your digestion, and yes, it even assists with weight loss. Fiber is an indigestible carb that will actually latch itself onto other carbs you are consuming and flush them out of the body. For example, if you are eating a piece of toast that has 12 grams of carbs with 3 grams of fiber, you’ll only consume 9 grams total.
Plus, fiber helps you to feel fuller for longer! By incorporating foods that are high in fiber (whole grains, beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit) as well as satiating protein and healthy fats, you’ll feel satisfied after eating every meal.
Carbs curb cravings
One of the most fascinating things I’ve learned as a nutrition journalist is how the potato is considered the most filling food of all time. That’s right, the potato. According to a Satiety Index of Common Foods published by the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Sydney, boiled potatoes are considered over 300% more filling than a slice of bread. Potatoes quite literally squash your hunger cravings by lowering ghrelin in your body, also known as the hunger hormone.
Eating carbs makes you feel better.
No wonder eating pancakes puts you in a good mood! One researcher at MIT actually proved that serotonin—the feel-good hormone—is released when you eat carbohydrates. This was also proved by showing how serotonin levels decreased for people who ended up eating a low-carb diet because their brains actually stopped regulating this hormone.
Do the types of carbs matter? Absolutely
I do love a good buttermilk pancake…but is it easy to overeat them? Totally.
How about oatmeal…can you overeat it? Not as likely.
This comparison shows the specific difference in types of carbohydrates and why they matter for our bodies. The two types of carbs to know about are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates (also known as processed carbs) are the kind of carbs that are easy to overeat. White bread products (including white rice, pasta, and tortillas), sugary cereal, desserts, and more. They are typically stripped over those natural whole grains, including dietary fiber, so they don’t make you feel as full afterward. You’ll just keep eating them and rack up the calories fast.
“The issue with carbs is not that they are bad for you, it’s that people often overeat them and they typically don’t overeat oatmeal. They overeat processed carbohydrates that are lower in nutrients and fiber,” says Goodson. “Longterm, the over intake of calories from processed carbohydrates (or any food) can lead to weight gain.”
Complex carbohydrates are the types of carbs that are a bit more difficult to overeat—and the type of carbs to strive for in a healthy diet.
“High-quality carbohydrates contain a variety of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber,” says Goodson. “Think of quinoa, brown rice, whole-grain bread and pasta, oats, etc. These foods provide the body with fiber and nutrients like B vitamins, iron, folic acid, and more. The fiber in these foods also works as a prebiotic, meaning that it helps to feed the good bacteria in the gut.”
Here’s a great list of the best healthy carbs to eat you can refer to when meal planning.
Does this mean I can’t have white pasta or dessert?
No. Gosh no. Restriction doesn’t work, remember?
It just means we need to be aware of these foods in our diet and enjoy them on special occasions. Are you going to an Italian restaurant where the pasta is homemade? Eat it, for crying out loud. Enjoy yourself.
The best way I balance my simple and complex carbohydrates is this: I eat complex carbohydrates when I’m at home and during a normal week, and I enjoy simple carbohydrates on special occasions. If I’m out with friends to celebrate something or if I’m at a wedding or even just went on a huge hike with a friend, I absolutely eat a simple carb.
But when I’m home making breakfast? Cooking dinner for my husband and I? Enjoying a casual weekend in Brooklyn? I go for the complex carbs. I make my pancakes with oatmeal. Because I know eating these types of foods regularly makes my body feel way better than when I was eating simple carbs all the time…or not eating any carbs at all.
“7 Dangerous Side Effects of the Keto Diet, According to Experts” (Eat This, Not That!)
“Ketogenic diet: What are the risks?” (University of Chicago Medicine)
“Carbohydrates” (American Heart Association)
“The #1 Thing To Eat Every Day To Lose Weight For Good” (Eat This, Not That!)
“Satiety Index of Common Foods” (The Department of Biochemistry at the University of Sydney)
“Carbs are essential for effective dieting and good mood, Wurtman says” (MIT News)