Carbohydrates have been vilified and misunderstood, much like fats used to be. The diet industry was built on a foundation of unnecessary food demonization that has made entire generations afraid of whole food groups. However, the evidence is clear that carbohydrates are an essential and delicious part of most healthy diets.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that make up all of the food we eat.
Carbohydrates are not more fattening than any other macronutrient.
Low-carb diets are effective for some but not required for fat loss, fitness, or maintaining proper health.
Athletes and exercisers need more carbohydrates to fuel their workouts, build muscle, and perform optimally.
Carbohydrates — a global perspective
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that comprise the human diet. They are made of long chains of sugars and provide us with energy.
For the past three decades, the ideal amount of carbs has been hotly debated in fitness and nutrition. Extremists exist on both sides of the spectrum, with some whole foods vegans even eating an all-carbohydrate diet. On the other hand, purveyors of the carnivore diet swear carbohydrates are the enemy.
However, even the mainstream nutrition discussions in America tend to be entirely Eurocentric, only discussing diets that include foods centered in the Western world. This is problematic for several reasons. Most notably because during the discussion of carbohydrates, this line of thinking has vilified many foods central to the diets of the Global Majority.
For example, rice, tortillas, and potatoes are staples in most people's diets worldwide. Therefore, to claim that they must eliminate their ethnic foods to achieve fat loss and health is deeply flawed and completely unnecessary.
While it is easy to get caught up in the conversations around the superior diet — especially in light of the global obesity epidemic — it is essential to remember that humans across the globe have survived on numerous diets for millennia.
It is time for a cease-fire in the war on carbohydrates.
The case for carbohydrates
First, let's just say it and get it out there — low-carb diets have their benefits. Therefore, a discussion of carbs must begin by addressing the utility of the low-carb diet for some people. Low-carb diets gained popularity in the 1990s as an effective weight-loss tool, especially for people with type 2 diabetes, as they can help with glycemic control. However, it is essential to note that there is no singular definition. According to Statpearls, low-carb diets can consist of at little as 20g and up to 130g of carbohydrates per day. Furthermore, this evidence-based framework has been shown to help with weight loss and blood-sugar management.
What is crucial to understand, however, is that carbohydrates are not more fattening than fats or proteins. Carbohydrates have a more significant impact on our blood sugar because they are comprised of small sugars — but not all carbohydrates are created equal. Most nutritionists today recommend including complex carbohydrates because they digest slower due to their additional fiber and contain more nutrients.
Diets high in processed foods, fats, and sugars are indeed associated with diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. However, carbohydrates are not the sole cause; these diets severely lack nutrients, fiber, and lean protein sources — all essential to a healthy diet.
Fiber is essential
Dietary fiber is the part of plants that we cannot digest but is essential for our health and digestion. Fiber is primarily found in carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Fiber provides numerous benefits, including:
- Lowering your risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and obesity.
- Lowers blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Aiding in weight loss and weight maintenance.
- Alleviating symptoms of constipation, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, and duodenal ulcers.
Carbs provide optimum support for endurance activities
Long a staple in the diets of runners, swimmers, cyclists, and hikers, carbs are an excellent energy source as they increase endurance and reduce fatigue. In addition, studies have shown that consuming carbohydrates before, during, and after endurance activities lasting over one-hour increases performance and improve recovery.
The moralization of food has consequences
When food misinformation thrives, fear and confusion run rampant. In the case of carbs, this unnecessary demonization of a macronutrient can have serious consequences, one of which is orthorexia. The National Eating Disorders Association defines orthorexia as the unhealthy obsession with ‘healthy’ eating.
Many people now believe that carbs are ‘bad’ and should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, when we vilify a food, we often enter into a cycle of restriction, binging, and guilt. This pattern often leads to yo-yo dieting, orthorexia, and sometimes eating disorders. However, the truth is that carbs are a vital part of our diet.