Last time, I discussed what a Calorie is, and how it impacts dieting (read about it here). In that post, I broke down the sources of Calories. One that within recent days seems to be the source of everything wrong with your health. People think that avoiding carbs is the key to improving health, and that avoiding carbohydrates makes you smarter, skinnier, have more sex appeal, etc. But is this really the case? Can avoiding all carbs help you lose weight and/or maintain your health?
To start, a carbohydrate (or carb) is a general category for a variety of things in food. Carbs are essentially a chain of something called a monosaccharide. Monosaccharides are the building blocks of all carbs. Sucrose, or table sugar, is made of glucose and fructose, forming a crystal. Lactose, the sugar in milk and milk products, is made of glucose and galactose. Maltose, a carb found in starchy foods like grains, is made of two glucose molecules. Carbohydrates provide 4 Calories per gram. Some common sources of carbs include fruits and vegetables (think like apples, carrots, and bananas), tubers (potatoes, jicama and yams), milk or milk-based products, or in a variety of prepared foods, beverages, or snacks.
There are two main ways these carbohydrates can form: Complex or Simple. Complex carbohydrates require more processing than simple carbohydrates. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains are examples of complex carbs because their sugar molecules form long chains of carbs, or into more complex bonds that form fiber. Fiber is a type of carb your body cannot digest, and is good for providing mass that can help move stuff through your digestion (insoluble fiber), bind with water to form a gel to keep everything together (soluble fiber), or can feed the bacteria in your gut. Simple carbohydrates include table sugar, syrups, or even concentrated fruit juice. These sugar molecules are simpler, and can be rapidly absorbed and used by the body.
Complex carbs affect blood sugar differently than simple carbohydrates. Because they take longer to process in the body, complex carbs have a slower but longer duration before all of it is absorbed. This results in a smooth, level rise and fall with blood sugar. Simple carbs spike blood sugar, resulting in a crash as the body tries to compensate for the sudden rise in blood sugar. This results in a “sugar crash.” The body prefers to have a level rise and fall in blood sugar, rather than large amounts entering the blood stream all at once.
Parts of the body, such as muscles and the central nervous system, use carbohydrates as a source of energy. The minimum recommended number of carbs per day to maintain health is 120 g of carbs per day. This amount provides enough carbohydrates for your brain and central nervous system to function properly. For most people, a higher amount than this is beneficial, as it assists with growth, energy levels, and may assist with weight management and disease prevention. MayoClinic has further information on carbohydrates, which can be found here.
Something else you might see people talking about are “good” or “bad” carbohydrates. What is meant is some carbohydrate sources are “good” for you since they contain a variety of healthy benefits, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in addition to whatever calories they provide. “Bad” carbohydrates offer little in terms of nutrition, and only really provide Calories.
To illustrate my point, we’ll compare one 12-oz serving of soda, black coffee with two sugar cubes in it (~2 teaspoons or 6 grams of sugar), and one medium carrot. Soda is syrup in carbonated water, with whatever coloring and flavoring agents added to give it the unique taste. One can of soda has around 160 Calories, coming from about 40g of sugar, all of it from high fructose corn syrup, a simple carbohydrate. Black coffee with sugar added has all the benefits from the coffee (B-vitamins, caffeine, antioxidants), with only around 24-25 Calories, mostly from the added sugar (table sugar is a simple carbohydrate). One carrot has around 25 Calories, but is rich in nutrients (fiber, vitamin A as beta-carotene, and small amounts of other vitamins and minerals).
In terms of healthiness, the carrot is by far the healthiest thing to have, especially with regards to satiety, or how long you feel full for. Studies have shown that the body might ignore Calories from beverages, meaning it’s easier to lose track of how much you actually are taking in. The coffee, while having more nutritional benefit than the soda, is held back by the fact that there’s added sugar to it. However, the sugar does not detract from the overall nutritional value. The soda offers little in terms of nutrition other than adding about 160 Calories to your intake (some sodas might have caffeine too). Fruit juice also suffers in the same way as the soda and the coffee with sugar; it’s a beverage with many of the benefits stripped, leaving behind the simple carbohydrates. It’s only suggested to have around 4-oz of fruit juice per day if that’s something you enjoy, because otherwise your body treats it like another source of Calories.
Does this mean that I think you should never touch a soda again? That you should avoid added altogether? No. However, I think that if you know more about what you are eating and drinking, you can make more informed choices. If weight loss is your goal, I suggest limiting high-simple carbohydrate items, like sodas or snack foods, and instead go for foods with more complex carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, to satiate hunger without the issue of more Calories. I don’t think eliminating foods that people enjoy is the best approach to health, but instead, people should moderate and balance healthy and unhealthy foods.
What about diets like the keto diet? Chances are, you’ve seen someone that followed keto for a few weeks or months, lost a shit-ton of weight, and won’t shut the fuck up about it. Believe me, I’ve talked with people across all sorts of disciplines, from grocery clerks to food service professionals to nursing staff, that will praise this diet. However, there is an issue with this. The keto diet is not a sustainable diet long-term with regards to weight maintenance or loss. Essentially, the way it works is you trick your body into thinking it’s starving, which makes your body use stored fat for fuel. The issue is it can lead to muscle loss, damage to the heart and other organs, and may increase weight gain if the person stops following the diet. For some more information, check out this article by Healthline.
That said, there are benefits to a lower carbohydrate diet. People with diabetes or cancer have been found to have improved health outcomes with higher control over blood sugar via limiting sugar. This does not mean they cannot have carbohydrates in their diet. A typical low-carb diet, as seen with diabetes, limits carbs based on your lifestyle, weight, and sex. Typical distribution of carbohydrates through the day to minimize blood sugar spikes and ensure enough carbs are: 30 g carbohydrate for breakfast, 45 g at lunch, 45 g at dinner, with 15 g carbohydrate for snacks. This is around 150 g carbohydrate per day.
To summarize, carbohydrates are not something that needs to be feared. Carbs are an essential part of the diet. Diets can be healthy, even if they include foods such as breads and pasta. However, it is best to be mindful of how much carbohydrate heavy foods you are eating, especially if it’s simple carbohydrates. If you are interested in losing weight, the recommended method is to limit high Calorie foods. Many of these foods contain high numbers of carbohydrates, such as soda, pastries, and cookies. Diets that remove entire food groups or have extreme limitations on different amounts of fats, protein, and/or carbohydrates have been found to have limited success over time (the exception to this rule being medically prescribed diets).