The Skinny on Carbs and Why You Should Eat Them

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Contributor 8 Min Read

Carbs became a scary term to many weight-conscious individuals in the mid to late 90s. It was said that carbs are harmful to your health, caused people to overeat, and that losing weight while eating carbs was impossible.

What was once considered part of a well-balanced diet became the enemy to be avoided at all costs.

Low-carb diets such as The Atkins Diet gained a lot of popularity during that time, though initially created in the 1960s by Cardiologist Robert C. Atkins. The beginning phase of The Atkins Diet allows for about 25 grams of carbs per day, and the final phase allows up to 100 grams of carbs per day.

In recent years the Ketogenic Diet, affectionately known as KETO, has gained popularity, though originally created by Dr. Russell Wilder in 1924 to treat epilepsy. Today’s KETO diet focuses on low carb and high fat to assist in rapid weight loss. The KETO diet consistently allows up to 50 grams of carbs per day.

According to the Mayo Clinic Health System, The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming 45% to 65% of total daily calories as carbs. For reference, a 2000-calorie diet allows between 225 and 325 grams of carbs.

WHAT ARE CARBS?

Simply put, carbs (short for carbohydrates) are essential nutrients that your body turns into glucose (sugar). They are the body’s primary energy source. Once the body breaks down carbs into glucose, it fuels our cells, tissues, and organs.  As the primary energy source, our body will use carbs for quick-acting energy. This is why marathon runners will load up on carbohydrates to prepare for their long duration runs.

NOT ALL CARBS ARE CREATED EQUAL

The types of carbohydrates we eat have different effects on the body. Complex carbs are known as the “good” carbs, while simple carbs are known as the “bad” carbs.

Complex carbs take longer for the body to digest and are more nutrient-dense, helping the body to remain full longer. These can be found in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.

Simple carbs are digested quickly and give a rapid energy boost with the added possibility of an energy crash. These are typically found in “junk” food and processed foods, such as candy, white bread, and white sugar.

When discussing the benefits of carbs, it tends to be the complex carbs that are referenced.

HEALTH BENEFITS OF EATING CARBS

As previously mentioned, carbs are the primary energy source of the body. While the body can utilize the other essential nutrients, such as fat and protein, for energy, it does not do it efficiently. Whether going for a run or simply breathing and being awake, the carbs we eat are utilized by the body to function at its best.

Fuelling your body with carbs can also help to increase your muscle mass. The energy that carbs provide means you can lift heavier, work out longer, and overall help you power through more intense workouts. While building muscle on a low-carb diet is possible, it tends to take longer and is more strenuous on the body.

Eating carbs can actually help you lose weight. The process of digesting carbs enables an increase in metabolism by encouraging fat burning by releasing fatty acids. That speedy metabolism, combined with the feeling of satiety, will cause you to burn more fat and eat less food allowing you to lose weight at a quicker rate.

Carbs can help lower your risk of cardiac disease. Dr. Polonsky, an assistant professor of medicine specializing in cardiology at the University of Chicago Medicine states, “They also decrease inflammation and help us decrease the risk of plaque build-up in our arteries.” Eating these heart-healthy carbs can therefore lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.

HAPPY BONUS OF EATING CARBS

The joy that many of us experience when eating a delectable meal is not just a psychological response in our minds.  It is also physiological, as eating carbs creates a chemical response in the brain. Carbohydrates trigger a chemical reaction in the brain to release serotonin. Serotonin, known as a happy hormone, contributes to feeling calm and satisfied in addition to enhancing happiness. Between the anticipation of eating amazing food and its actual consumption, there is a real boost in experiencing a good mood.

As someone who loves broccoli, I cannot say it has ever prompted a happy dance from me the same way a plate of spaghetti and meatballs has.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

While carbs have their place in our diets, overconsumption also has risks. Carbs are utilized by the body for energy, and any excess is stored as glycogen in the liver, muscles, and cells. This stored glycogen serves as an energy reserve when carb intake is insufficient.

Once the glycogen stores are full, the excess is then stored as fat. This is one way carbs can contribute to weight gain.

The excess carbs that aren’t utilized by the body that convert to sugar can cause increased blood sugar levels, leading to metabolic health conditions, such as diabetes mellitus (type 2 diabetes). Complications from diabetes can contribute to other health conditions, such as heart disease, kidney damage, nerve damage, and eye issues, to name a few.

IN SUMMARY 

Despite the current recommendations, there are still a lot of negative stigmas when it comes to carbs. While the rumours about carbs are not quite debunked, they are also not entirely accurate. The quality and quantity of the carbs eaten matter.

Carbs are not the enemy and should not be villainized as a whole. Making healthier decisions that include carbs and align with your goals and lifestyle is possible.

Set yourself up for success by eating intentionally and reaching for more complex carbs. These foods will tend to be more natural, whole foods that will keep you full longer and fuel your body with nutrients. Foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can help you with your health goals.

Eat simple carbs more sparingly. These are typically processed, high-sugar foods, which will make it difficult to lose weight and contribute to higher disease rates. These are your cookies, potato chips, and white bread. It is about enjoying them in moderation as opposed to eating mindlessly.

There are many different ways to add carbs to your diet, and you get to choose how to best do that for you. Before starting any new diet, consult with your physician and be sure to always listen to your body.

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