Thanks to Dr. Atkins, carbohydrates are largely the most bullied group on the food pyramid playground. Dieters can’t get enough of fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy, but carbs? Carbs make people fat, right? Wrong: That’s where dieters are very wrong. Carbs actually do a body good and give us the energy we need to live our lives, but they still get a bad rap, and that’s where consumers’ misunderstanding of the macromolecules comes into play. If chosen carefully, carbohydrates can deliver a number of health benefits and also help people maintain their weight. So whether dieters like to believe it or not, carbohydrates actually have a rightful place in any food regimen, no matter how strict.
First things first, though, we have to get a couple of things straight. Cereal, bread, and pasta are not the only carbs you can find in the grocery store. Carbs are more all-encompassing than you may think, and many more foods fall under the carb umbrella than many realize. Med-Health.net explains that carbs can be divided into three groups: sugar, starches, and fiber. Natural sugar, like the kind found in fruits and vegetables, represents the simplest form of carbohydrates, and it may be obtained in three forms: lactose, fructose, and sucrose. Starches are those sugar units bonded together, and naturally occurring starch can be found in rice, beans, peas, and other grains. Fiber is also made of bonded sugar, and fiber occurs in vegetables, whole grains, peas and dry beans, bran, soya beans, and more.
Do you still think you’ve completely sworn off carbs? It’s not all about saying no to pizza and bagels. If you really are on a no-carb diet, then you’re saying no to a whole lot more, and if you think you’ve failed, have no fear! As it turns out, carbs are friends, not foes, and here are seven reasons why.
1. Carbs make you happy
Really, they do. Carbs make people happy, and if you’re wondering why your coworker on a low-carb diet isn’t so smiley all the time, here’s why. We’ve all heard of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin before, and though there is no food that can directly affect serotonin levels, the results of a study conducted by the Archives of Internal Medicine, highlighted by Eating Well, supports researchers’ suspicions that carbs promote the production of serotonin.
It is believed that the intake of carbohydrate-rich foods can increase the amount of serotonin produced by the brain, because carbs can help increase the tryptophan ratio over other amino acids. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is important for serotonin synthesis, so if carbohydrate-rich foods help aid its production, they can help serotonin levels rise.
According to Eating Well, the study by the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who followed a very low carbohydrate diet for a year experienced more depression, anxiety, and anger than those assigned to a low-fat, high-carb diet that focused on low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruit, and beans. The key is choosing the right carbs, which we’ll get to soon.
2. Carbs give you energy
We said this before, and we’ll say it again: Carbs are your body’s main source of energy — they fuel your life, especially your physical activity. There’s a reason runners “carbo-load” before their big races, and it’s not only because carbs taste good. It’s because they can tell how the complex carbs affect their performances.
According to Med-Health.net, the main source of energy required for your daily activity comes from glucose, and you get your glucose from the starches and sugars you eat. We’ve already gone over the fact that starches and sugar fall under the carbohydrate umbrella, and it is these kinds of carbs that get broken down into simple sugar with the help of insulin during digestion.
Don’t believe us? Then take it from, registered dietitian Amy Shapiro also the founder of Real Nutrition NYC. In regards to the the misunderstanding surrounding the C-word (carbs), she said on Refinery 29, “Our body breaks them down and turns them into sugar, or glucose, and then uses that, not only for immediate energy that is free flowing in our blood (hence why it elevates our blood sugar levels), but also for future use, where it’s stored in our muscles and liver (that’s where the idea of carbo-loading before a race comes into play).”
The reason that carbs get such a bad rap is because the extra sugar available from the glucose formation gets stored in muscles, the liver, or other parts of your body, later getting converted into fat if the body doesn’t need it for energy. However, that’s on you, not the carbs. If you keep moving and require your body to use up that energy, the sugar from carbohydrates won’t get stored as fat. Case in point: Carbs don’t make you fat. How much you eat and how little you move makes you fat.
3. Carbs help you maintain your weight
Many consumers blame any and all weight gain on carbs, but carbs have been proven to help dieters maintain their weight as long as people are picking the right carbs to eat and are eating them in moderation. The great thing about carbs is that they fill you up and keep you satiated, keeping you from reaching your hand into the cookie jar late at night. Diets rich in carbohydrates can be helpful in reducing weight and controlling muscle tone because many carb-filled foods are even more filling than protein or fat, and that makes them powerful appetite suppressants.
That’s the problem with low-carb diets: Consumers on these types of regimes have a hard time feeling satiated, and therefore their hunger signals cause them to give up or binge eat sooner rather than later. Maintaining a regimen in which carbs make up to 64% of your total daily caloric intake, or 361 grams, is a better idea because it helps you stay satiated and stay focused on your weight maintenance or weight loss goals.
According to Health, that’s the ratio that researchers believe is best for helping consumers get and stay slim. Most low-carb diets limit people to fewer than 30% of total calories from carbs. That number, compared to the goal 64% that researchers recommend, is a big indicator of why so many people on low-carb fad diets end up crashing and burning.
The key to maintaining a carb-rich diet and maintaining your weight is focusing on the right carbs to eat. In the carb world, complex is always better than simple. Via Refinery 29, Shapiro says: “Complex carbs — like whole grains — contain higher levels of fiber, so they take longer to break down and don’t spike your blood sugar as quickly as those that don’t have a lot of fiber, therefore your insulin levels aren’t off the charts. Your body takes longer to digest them, so then the sugar is more evenly distributed in your bloodstream.”
On the other hand, simple carbs, or refined carbs, are less healthful because although they give you fast energy, they don’t take as long to digest as complex carbs, so they pull consumers through a brutal carb-sugar cycle. You reach for carbs; you reach for sugar; you repeat. Simple carbs result in a quick spike of energy followed by a crash, and then you are tempted reach for more sugar for an instant energy boost. When this cycle occurs, your body has higher insulin levels, which causes you to store and keep fat more easily. Therefore, just say no(!) to simple carbs. White bread, white pasta, candy, fruit juice, packaged cereals, and processed foods, we’re looking at you.
4. Carbs help prevent diseases
Yep — they fight weight gain and they fight diseases, too. Told you carbs weren’t so bad. Med-Health.net says that complex carbs help your body because carb-rich foods are packed with fiber, and fibrous foods help your body fight certain diseases. Fiber also helps indigestion and keeps cholesterol and heart diseases under control. Whole grains are the richest source of dietary fiber, so if you exercise control and maintain a proper intake of whole-grain calories, Med-Health.net says that you can help prevent the onset of many diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart-related problems.
Joelle Klein of the Cleveland Clinic of Wellness agrees. She published a paper in 2009 that reads: “The more nutritious carbs (which are usually minimally processed) can help lower your cholesterol, control your blood sugar and make it easier for you to lose weight — all factors in preventing disease and improving your health. The less nutritious kinds (which are usually refined foods) can adversely affect your health, especially if eaten in large quantities, because they typically have added sugars and are stripped of most of their nutritional value during the refining process.”
Once again, it’s all about picking the right carbs.
5. Carbs help keep your memory sharp
Another reason carbs are friends and not foes? They keep your memory sharp, as reported in a study by Tufts University and highlighted by Eating Well. Researchers at the Boston-area college found that after overweight women followed a “low-carbohydrate” diet for a week, they did worse on tests of working memory and visuospatial memory (remembering locations on a map) than their counterparts who followed a “low-calorie” diet based on American Dietetic Association guidelines.
It makes sense if you think about it. Just as carbohydrates are required to fuel your body, they also are required to fuel your brain. Complex carbs such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, high-fiber cereal, lentils, and whole beans help keep you on your mental game, also keeping your memory sharp.
Care2.com says that the perfect fat-carb-protein intake for a good memory requires that you consume 30 to 45% of your daily calories from complex carbohydrates while staying away from high glycemic carbs such as sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, processed cereals and grains, baked goods, whole milk, and cream. You should get the other 25 to 35% of your calories from high-quality lean protein and round it out with another 25% of your calories from healthy fat.
6. Carbs help you you blast fat
Plot twist! Carbs also help you burn fat. The opposite of what we have always thought, right? As it turns out, this news isn’t too good to be true, and we’ll let the research do the talking. Health reports that carbs actually help you lose your belly fat faster than other foods, even when the same number of calories are consumed.
That’s because they are metabolic primers, meaning they are needed to completely burn fat; without them, fat won’t be able to be effectively combusted, resulting in ketone bodies. Health says that when scientists fed rats a diet rich in resistant starch, it increased the activity of fat-burning enzymes and decreased the activity of fat-storing enzymes. This means that the belly-fat cells were less likely to soak up and store calories as fat.
Eating Well also highlighted evidence that the macromolecules aid in the combustion of fat. They shared results from a study conducted by the Journal of Nutrition, which found that eating a breakfast made with “slow-release” carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, three hours before exercise helped exercisers burn more fat.
According to researchers, in the study, eating the good carbohydrates didn’t spike blood sugar as much as eating refined carbohydrates — therefore, insulin levels didn’t spike as high. Because insulin plays a role in signaling your body to store fat, it is believed that having lower levels may help you burn fat. As it turns out, complex carbs should be feared by fat, not consumers.
7. Carbs are good for digestion
Last but not least, carbs are necessary for digestion, and speed up the whole process. SIFY Health maintains the belief “Don’t say no to carbohydrates, choose healthy carbs instead!” and one of its reasons is that carbs aid in digestion. It says the dietary fiber found in carbohydrates helps digestion because it moves food quickly through intestines, which helps prevent digestive disorders such as constipation or diverticulitis. Dietary fiber also bulks up the stool and makes it softer, which reduces peoples’ risk of developing hemorrhoids.
The San Francisco Chronicle also reports that an additional benefit of fiber is that it is the only carbohydrate that is not broken down by digestive enzymes. Soluble fiber becomes a thick, gel-like mass in the small intestines due to its ability to dissolve in water, while insoluble fiber remains unchanged during digestion. This again makes dietary fiber an important part of the diet because it helps prevent constipation and helps maintain bowel health. It also reduces blood levels of low-density lipoproteins, controls blood glucose levels, and may even help you lose weight.
That’s a wrap — three cheers for carbs!