Why Carbohydrates Are Important

Is it me, or do those cookies look slightly evil?

Confused about carbs? Before you go cutting them out of your life, read on to find out why carbohydrates are important to health.

Clearing up carbohydrate confusion

A 2018 survey found that Americans blame carbohydrates for weight gain, which is probably why low-carb diets are so attractive. Yet, eating a more plant-based diet is linked to better weight control and other health benefits.

What’s more, the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest ways to eat. It’s rich in vegetables and whole grains, and is anything but low in carbohydrates.

It’s time we stopped loving to hate carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates give you energy 

The body prefers carbohydrates as an energy source because they are easily converted to glucose, the fuel that cells use.

Carbohydrates are found in foods such as milk, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, legumes (beans), bread, cereals, pasta, rice, and in cookies, cakes, and other sweets.

With the exception of fiber, carbs provide four calories per gram. Fiber is mostly indigestible, but more on that later.

Carbohydrates are classified as “simple,” and “complex.”

Simple carbohydrates, found in foods including maple syrup, honey, table sugar, and white bread, pasta, and rice, and milk, are digested quickly.

The starch and other complex carbohydrates found in foods such as whole grain bread, vegetables, and legumes (beans), take longer for the body to digest, making for a slower and steadier energy release into the bloodstream.

When levels of glucose dip in the bloodstream, your mental and physical energy drops, too.

Feeling “hangry” is a real thing

What happens when you eat a low carbohydrate diet 

A very low-carbohydrate intake forces the body to use protein and fat for energy, which isn’t ideal. That’s because protein is meant to help build and maintain lean tissue, including muscle, and to make enzymes, hormones, and cells to support life. When protein is used for energy, it cannot do its job to the fullest.

When the body breaks down fat for energy, it produces ketones. Blood levels of ketones remain elevated on a very low-carb diet.  Experts aren’t sure about the effects of high ketones on health, but they do know that excessive ketones can be life-threatening in people with diabetes.

A low-carb diet may shorten your life

Cut carbs and you cut calories, which may be the reason for weight loss.

Why low-carb diets work for weight loss

You will probably lose weight on a very low-carb eating plan, such as the ketogenic diet.

It’s no mystery why, though. Cutting carbs means cutting calories, which encourages weight loss.

If you don’t want to drastically cut carbs to shed pounds, take heart. Research shows that low fat diets work just as well as low carb diets for weight loss.

How eating carbohydrate helps you have a healthy baby 

Maple syrup and honey may be “natural,” but they are sources of added sugar.

Why carbohydrates are good for your gut microbiome 

Fiber, found only in plant foods, including whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and beans, protects against diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer. Your gut cannot fully digest fiber, but the bacteria that live in  you gut can.

Bacteria in the colon ferment, or feed on, the fiber in food, producing short chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA protect the lining of your gut and defend it against colon cancer, help to control blood glucose, reduce inflammation, and strengthen your immune system.

Fiber helps to keep you fuller longer, which is beneficial when trying to control your weight. It also plays a role in lowering blood cholesterol levels, keeping blood glucose levels in a normal range, and preventing constipation.

It’s next to impossible to get the fiber you need on a very low-carbohydrate eating plan. As a result, you will starve the good bacteria in your gut that support your overall health.

Some carbohydrate choices are better than others, but you can still have treats! 

How to eat more good carbohydrates 

When it comes to choosing carbs, quality counts. It’s a good idea to consider the company that carbohydrates keep rather than taking them off your menu.

Foods rich in added sugars, such as regular soft drinks, granola bars, and candy, typically offer little besides calories. Limit your intake of foods with added sugars, but know that you don’t have to completely avoid them. Find out what your daily added sugar allowance is here.

Why it’s OK to eat refined grains

Choose high-carb, nutrient-rich foods more often to support your health.

Fruits and vegetables, and plain milk and yogurt, contain naturally-occurring simple sugars. They are not on the list of sweeter foods experts advise us to limit, however.

Foods with naturally-occurring sugar, as well as starchy foods such as whole and enriched grains, potatoes, and rice, are desirable because they supply vitamins, minerals, water, fiber, and phytonutrients, beneficial plant compounds that protect your cells.

Fortified grains supply additional nutrients, such as iron and folic acid, which are often in short supply in women of childbearing age.

The downside of going gluten-free

Bread made with enriched grains provides vitamins and minerals that often go missing in our diets.

How much carbohydrate and fiber should you eat?

Suggested daily carbohydrate and fiber intakes are based on calorie requirements.

Experts recommend consuming 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories as carbohydrate. That amounts to:

  • 248 to 358 grams on a 2,200-calorie eating plan
  • 225 and 325 grams on a 2,000-calorie eating plan
  • 202 to 293 grams on an 1,800-calorie eating plan

Just for reference, popular low-carb diets suggest far less carbohydrate than nutrition experts.  For example, the ketogenic way of eating recommends no more than 50 grams daily, about the amount found in a three-ounce egg bagel.

Fruit is full of water, and can help you meet your daily fluid needs.

Check this list for the carbohydrate content of foods. 

Suggested fiber intakes are easier to figure:

• For every 1,000 calories consumed, eat at least 14 grams of fiber from food.

• For example, on a 2,000-calorie eating plan, include a minimum of 28 grams of food fiber daily.

Beans supply a type of fiber that help beneficial gut bacteria thrive!

How to get the fiber you need every day

It’s easier to include enough fiber and other carbohydrates when you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables (which includes beans) and at least three servings a day of whole grains.

Don’t be concerned about eating refined grains. As long as they are fortified, such as bread, cereal, pasta, and rice, they can be part of a balanced diet.

For packaged foods, check the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels for fiber content.

Here are some common fiber sources, listed in grams:

Navy beans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 10

Lentils, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 8

Black beans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 8

Garbanzo beans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 8

Whole wheat bread, 2 ounces: 6

White beans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 6

Pear, 1 medium: 6

Avocado, 1⁄2 cup: 5

Soybeans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked or roasted: 5

Peas, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 4

Chia seeds, 1 tablespoon: 4

Apple, medium, with skin:  4

Raspberries, 1⁄2 cup: 4

Potato, medium, with skin, baked: 4

Sweet potato, medium, flesh only, baked: 4

Almonds, 1 ounce: 4

Broccoli, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 3

Orange, 1 medium: 3

Banana, 1 medium: 3

Quinoa, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 3

Conclusion: The truth about carbohydrates

Most foods rich in carbohydrate also contain important nutrients that cannot be found in other foods.

Like any calorie-containing component of food, including protein, fat, and alcohol, too much carbohydrate may end up as stored body fat because of the excess calories it provides.

Eating much less than the recommended amount of carbohydrate is not a good idea, either, because it may have many negative effects on your health.

Including more plant foods and plain dairy products in a balanced eating plan is your best bet for getting enough “good” carbs.  Added sugar can also be part of a healthy diet for most people, including those with diabetes. (Check with your dietitian about your daily carbohydrate #budget”.)

Vegetables supply several nutrients, including fiber and phytonutrients – protective plant compounds.

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