Let’s get something straight about carbs

I’m getting a little tired of people telling me they are going on no-carb diets, especially when they don’t seem to know what a carb is. My brother’s friend proclaimed he was cutting out all carbs, yet was not avoiding fruits and vegetables. My uncle told me the same, but seemed to still be eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. So let’s just get this whole carb discussion out of the way, once and for all.

Carbohydrates are a group of nutrients that include sugars, starches, and fiber. They are actually the body’s preferred energy source, providing 4 calories per gram. Generally speaking, plant foods are mostly carbohydrates by weight and by caloric content, meaning most of the calories you get from fruits, vegetables, and grains come from carbohydrates. Still, a potato is not “a carb;” rather, it contains carbs, mostly in the form of starch. Whole potatoes also contain a myriad of other nutritious compounds, including protein, believe it or not. Animal foods, on the other hand, are not a good source of carbohydrates, other than milk, which contains a sugar called lactose. Animal products do contain a high proportion of protein, compared to plant foods. This may be why you tend to get asked if you want to add “a protein” to your salad. However, this is a bit misguided, because most of the calories in chicken, beef, eggs, fish etc. come from fat.

Regardless, we need to stop referring to foods as single nutrients. And we need to stop demonizing carbohydrates as a society. The healthiest, long-lived, not to mention naturally slim, people (i.e. those with a heavily plant-based diet) actually eat a diet very high in carbs.

The caveat is, however, that these high-carb diets get their carbs from whole and minimally processed plant foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. The reason carbs went to the proverbial gallows in the first place was because people started eating too many highly processed carbohydrates: cookies, candy, white rice, white bread, french fries, muffins, cakes, chips, crackers, noodles, etc. Carbohydrates themselves (i.e. the nutrient) are not the enemy, it is how you package them (i.e. the food). I would say the exact same thing about protein and fats.

So many people who want to lose weight try to cut down on carbs. But from my personal experience and what I know of the scientific evidence on the matter, it is my opinion that the easiest way to prevent overeating is to eat a diet as high in fiber as possible, which, contrary to conventional dieting wisdom, means eating a lot of carbohydrates. But if I have taught you anything, I hope it’s that when differentiating between dietary patterns, it is the component foods that you focus on, not the component nutrients. We shouldn’t think “carbs are bad, protein is good,” or even “this carb is bad, this carb is good,” but rather “soda is bad, brown rice and apples and broccoli are good.”

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One thought on “Let’s get something straight about carbs

  1. Something that still sticks with me from my metabolism lecturer was the way she defended carbs with a fury.

    “The primary source of fuel for the brain is glucose, glucose (most readily) comes from carbohydrate. When Hunter/Gatheres started farming/getting into agriculture and producing enough grain to fuel their brains – that’s when our brains started growing”

    Cutting out the main source of fuel for the brain is a terrible idea, why defy millions of years worth of evolution for the sake of a fad?

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