Carbohydrate-rich foods get a bad rap. They are the first to get cut out of the diets of people looking to lose weight, often replaced with meats or other proteins.
But carbohydrates aren’t evil. In fact, many experts say you need to be eating carbs, as long as you are eating the right kinds of carbohydrates and you do so in moderation. Carbohydrate-rich foods often have other important nutrients in them that you might miss if you cut them out entirely.
Federal health guidelines recommend that carbohydrates make up between 45% and 65% of your diet, according to the Mayo Clinic. In a 2,000-calorie diet, that would be 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates each day. The Mayo Clinic also notes that a low-carb diet can help you lose weight, but only if you diet in the right way.
Here is a list of some common misconceptions about carbohydrates, as well as recommendations about how to incorporate them into a healthy diet.
Myth 1: All carbs come from bread, pasta, or other food made with grains
Carbohydrates come in a variety of forms, including sugars, fibers, and starches, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. They can be found in bread, beans, milk, corn products, potatoes, sugary soft drinks, and cookies. Some of the healthiest forms of carbohydrates come from beans, legumes, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables, said Vicki Shanta Retelny, a registered dietician and nutritionist who is also an author and blogger.
Generally, she said, non-starchy carbs contain fewer calories than starchy carbs, which include potatoes, peas, and corn. But beans and legumes, though starchy, also have a lot of protein. “You’re getting big bang for your buck,” she says.
Myth 2: Carbs are bad for me
Healthy carbohydrates are a necessary part of your diet, and they can provide a variety of health benefits.
You can get other important nutrients from carbohydrate-rich foods. Whole grains provide fiber, iron, folic acid, and B vitamins, all of which are necessary for our overall health, Retelny said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some types of healthy carbohydrates can actually help you control your weight and fight diseases. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have plenty of fiber, which can help you feel full while eating fewer calories. There is also some evidence that fiber-rich carbs can help lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases, fight type 2 diabetes, and improve digestive health, according to the clinic.
Of course, many types of carbohydrates — such as cakes, cookies, and white breads and pastas — are bad for you. Many of these less healthy, processed, or refined carbs can cause your blood sugar and insulin to spike when you eat them, Retelny said, and you should replace them with whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
Myth 3: I will lose weight if I cut carbs out of my diet
You might lose weight if you cut back on the amount of carbs you eat, especially processed white breads and sweets, and replace them with whole grains. And if you replace carbs with protein, you could lose weight because it takes more energy for your body to burn protein than carbs, Retelny said. But you shouldn’t cut carbs out of your diet entirely.
If you cut an entire food group out of your diet, your body will crave the missing food, she said. That might make you more likely to slip up and gorge yourself on unhealthy foods. Instead, work healthy carbohydrates into your diet. If you continue to eat healthy carbs, soon enough your body won’t crave the unhealthy varieties, she said.
In the end, it is more important to eat carbohydrates from a healthy source than to count the number of grams of carbs you’re getting each day, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Myth 4: The way I get carbs doesn’t matter, because I should cut them out of my diet
Some types of carbohydrate-rich foods are better than others. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends about half of the food you eat each day be fruits and veggies. Whole grains should make up about one quarter of the food you eat.
Retelny suggested choosing carbs that are rich in fiber or protein — such as beans or legumes — so you feel fuller while consuming fewer calories.
Myth 5: My body doesn’t need carbs
Carbohydrates help give you energy and keep your body running. Carbohydrate-rich foods provide glucose to your body, which supports physical activity and your body’s basic functions, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Or, as Retelny said: “Your body needs it to fuel your energy levels, your brain. Every cell in your body needs it.”
Myth 6: The best way to cut back on carbs is to stop eating them and tough it out for a few weeks
You might be able to cut out and replace them with more protein and veggies for a few weeks, but that probably won’t be sustainable, Retelny said.
Instead, she said, eat whole-grains and healthy carbs in moderation. Get rid of all processed or refined products from your home and office, and replace them with whole-grain bread, English muffins, pasta, wraps, or other healthy starches you enjoy.
Keep measuring cups on hand so you can portion out your food, and don’t be afraid to add a little healthy fat to your meals, such as avocados, cheese, or olive oil. That will help you feel more satisfied, she said. And, she added, eat frequently, so you don’t get ravenously hungry and binge on unhealthy snacks.
The Harvard School of Public Health recommends looking for breads or wraps that list a whole grain — whole wheat, whole rye, etc. — as the first ingredient, or as the only type of grain. You can also incorporate whole grains like brown rice or quinoa in salads.
When it comes to fruit, the school recommends going a whole fruit instead of juice. The juice is more likely to have a lot of sugar, and many whole fruits have more fiber than their juice counterparts.