Carbs are taking a lot of heat these days. Now that fat as a category is off the hook, carbs are being single-handedly blamed by some for the rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. But broad assertions like that are pretty ridiculous when you recognize that some of the most nutritious foods on the planet are primarily carbohydrates. Many people take carbs to mean pasta, rice, bread, and cookies, but the grouping also encompasses many of the plant-based staples of a whole-foods diet: vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, and whole grains. The field of carbohydrate-rich foods is much too diverse to make blanket statements about their healthfulness or lack thereof. As obesity expert David Katz, MD, likes to say, “a jelly bean is not a pinto bean.”
Carbs have earned a bad rap because the most common sources in Americans’ diets are nothing to celebrate. According to government survey data from 2003 to 2006, the top five contributors to U.S. adults’ carbohydrate intake are soda, breads and rolls (mostly white, refined versions), baked goods such as cookies and cakes, candy, and fruit (phew, something positive). So people eating the typical Western, high-carb diet are loading up on sugar and white flour from junk foods that offer minimal nutritional value. On the other hand, a carb-heavy diet that’s rich in whole plant foods can be incredibly beneficial. In fact, people living in the world’s “Blue Zones” — a term for regions with especially high longevity — subsist on a diet that’s primarily minimally-processed carbohydrate foods, including beans, whole grains, and starchy root vegetables.
Clearly, carbohydrates are one of the most misunderstood nutrients in what is already, for many, a confusing landscape of food choices. To help set the record straight, here are five carb myths that may be tainting your view of healthy eating.
Carb Myths You Should Ignore
- A carb is a carb. Both a serving of Frosted Flakes and a serving of chickpeas have roughly the same amount of carbohydrates, but their nutrient profiles could not be more different. Vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains are high in fiber — indigestible carbohydrates that increase fullness, promote regularity, and nourish a diverse, well-balanced gut microbiome. These complex plant foods are also rich in essential vitamins and minerals and phytonutrients, biologically active compounds that may help protect the body from disease. On the other hand, heavily processed carbs, including sugary drinks, sweets, white bread, and snack foods, provide a hefty carbohydrate load with few or no additional nutrients. Because they are more refined, they are digested rapidly and generally produce a greater rise in blood sugar. In short, carbohydrates are not a uniform category by any means, and the source determines the quality.
- Carbohydrate-rich foods contain only carbohydrates. Classifying foods as carbohydrates is a bit misleading, since nearly all whole foods are actually a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, the three major macronutrients. For example, although grains and vegetables get most of their calories from carbohydrates, they do contain trace amounts of fat, and small-to-moderate amounts of protein, which also contribute to the body’s needs. On a similar note, avocados and nuts deliver most of their calories as fat, but they still provide some carbohydrates. Rather than focusing on macronutrients like carbs, which makes sensible eating more complicated than it needs to be, I encourage people to zoom out, so to speak, and concentrate on eating a variety of whole, plant-based foods.
- Cutting carbs is the best way to lose weight. A recent meta-analysis found that the low-carb diets led to more weight loss after at least one year compared to low-fat diets, but the difference was only 2.5 pounds, which isn’t a meaningful advantage. According to the study, published in The Lancet, participants following any diet only kept off an average of 6 pounds after one year or longer, so the real takeaway is that making lasting changes to eating habits is a major challenge. If weight-loss research has taught us anything, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the most important thing is to identify an approach that you personally find sustainable. Restricting portions of starches like rice, pasta, bread, and snack foods can be a very successful strategy, and it leaves more calorie room for nutrient-dense foods. But strictly limiting your daily carbohydrate grams — or cutting out higher-carb superstars, like fruit, whole grains, beans, and sweet potatoes — certainly isn’t a requirement for shedding pounds.
- All carbs wreak havoc on your blood sugar. All carbohydrate-containing foods raise blood sugar, but not to the same degree. Generally speaking, foods such as vegetables, beans, and whole grains that are high in fiber and minimally processed (and therefore require more extensive digestion) have a low glycemic index, meaning they cause a slow, steady incline in blood sugar, compared to refined carbs like sugary drinks, white bread, white rice, and chips. That said, some increase in blood sugar and the hormone insulin after eating is a natural part of digestion — and nothing to fear. These processes allow the body to extract energy from food and fuel the brain, muscles, and other organs. And in people with a healthy metabolism, the body has no problem handling the occasional high-carb meal, such as a bowl of pasta or plate of pancakes (although I don’t recommend eating this way on a regular basis).
- There is no place for refined carbs in a healthy diet. It’s wise to choose whole grains most of the time and limit foods made with white starch and sugar, but that doesn’t mean you should never, ever indulge in cookies, crusty bread, or french fries. Eating well really is about achieving balance, and if you’ve built a solid dietary foundation that prioritizes vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, then there’s certainly room for some of these “less wholesome” foods in small portions. Baked goods, sweets, and packaged foods made with white flour aren’t deadly toxins, but they should be the exception rather than the rule in a healthy eating pattern.