The Truth About Carbs (and Why You Should Be Eating Them)
Ask a friend or coworker about carbohydrates and you could get an earful: They’re bad for you. They’re fine—but only if you work out. They’ll make you gain weight. Or maybe: Low-carb diets are the only way to go.
Confused? You’re not alone. There’s a lot of legit information out there, but there’s also a lot of pseudo-science, making it hard to translate any of it into daily, healthy practices.
But before we dive into separating myth from fact, let’s get a few of the basics out of the way. Carbohydrates are one of the main nutrients your body needs, sometimes called macronutrients (There are three macros: carbs, protein, and fat). Carbs are the most important source of energy for your body. Your body will break down carbs into glucose (the sugar found in your blood), and your blood helps transport this fuel all over your body to provide the energy you need to do everything from run and jump to sit and sleep.
Unless your doctor has told you otherwise, carbs are part of an overall healthy diet. But not all carbs are created equal, so it’s important to learn which (and how much) you should be eating. Here are some of the most common carb misconceptions—and the science-backed truth.
Carbs: The Good, The Bad, and The Bogus
1. Myth: Carbs will make you fat.
Truth: It can be tempting to blame any undesirable health issue on a single item—be it sugar, red meat, or gluten. More recently, carbs have been the culprit du jour.
“People like [carbohydrates] so much, they tend to overeat them,” says Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet. “So people gain weight—not because the carbs are bad—but because they’re having too much.”
A lot of those crave-inducing carbs are the kind that are high in refined sugar and low in fiber. Think: candy, crackers, chips, and cookies.
“People see carbs as snack foods or unhealthy foods,” says Willow Jarosh, R.D., a dietitian and co-founder of C&J Nutrition. And unfortunately, nutrient-rich carbs—like fruit, vegetables, and grains—are too often lumped in with the nutritionally-poor kind—like soda and syrup, Jarosh says.
“If you consume more calories than your body needs—whether or not it contains carbohydrate—you can gain an unhealthy amount of weight,” says Elisa Zied, R.D., author of Younger Next Week and a member of the Passion for Pasta Advisory Council. So though it might be easy to blame carbs, it’s probably best to look at everything you’re eating—from breakfast to dessert.
2. Myth: All simple carbs are unhealthy.
Truth: Simple carbs get a bad rap because foods with refined sugar typically fall into this category. Think: candy, soda, chips, and syrup.
“Simple carbohydrates have a high glycemic index and can raise blood sugar levels,” Zied says. But not all of them are necessarily bad for you. Healthy examples of unrefined simple carbs include dairy and fruit.
On the other hand, “complex carbohydrates are absorbed and digested by the body more slowly,” Zied says. “They have a lower glycemic index than simple carbohydrates and tend not to raise blood sugar levels the way simple carbohydrates do.” Complex carbs include grains such as bulgur, quinoa, and some pastas and starchy vegetables such as acorn squash, corn, and pumpkin.
Focusing on complex carbs that are high in fiber (meaning they have 5 grams or more per serving) will keep you satisfied longer—without having to consume too many calories.
“Fiber is one of the things that helps slow down the blood sugar spike,” Jarosh says. “[Without fiber], it’s more likely that you’ll get hungrier again sooner, and you’re not going to feel as satisfied. And that’s what gives carbs a bad name.”
For instance, think about how much easier it might be to overeat cheese pizza versus butternut squash stuffed with radicchio and onion.