If carbohydrates were people, they'd be the the most misunderstood, underappreciated guys on the block. Instead, they're just the most misunderstood, underappreciated macro-nutrient...and they have been ever since South Beach became much more than a vacation destination.
Food personification aside, it's understandable if you're confused about carbohydrates. Of all the food groups, this is the one people seem to have the most questions about these days. And rightly so. Media demonizes carbs, claiming that they're as addictive as cocaine and a one-way ticket to diabetes. Most of today's popular diets (I'm looking at you, keto) are gaining traction right now by promising food freedom through the near elimination of carbohydrates. Many people turn to these diets because they feel like they're addicted to carbs due to binges on ice cream, brownies, potato chips, and similar foods.
What's going on? Is there research to support reducing the carbohydrate content of our diet? Here's what you need to know as you navigate the tides of nutrition opinions surrounding this controversial nutrient.
There's More To Carbohydrates Than Potato Chips and Ice Cream
Part of why carbohydrates get such a bad wrap is because they are stereotyped as foods that are low in nutrients and high in calories. While we're not bashing any specific foods, please realize pizza and powdered doughnuts are not the only foods that contain carbohydrates! That plain Greek yogurt you buy to boost your protein at breakfast contains carbohydrates. So do oatmeal, lentils, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Yes, even carrots have carbs, folks. To recommend eliminating or severely cutting carbohydrates would mean cutting out many of the foods that provide vital nutrients to our bodies.
Your Body Prefers Carbohydrates
In fact, the current (heavily researched) dietary recommendations state that roughly half of your daily intake be from carbohydrates (more if you're an athlete or fairly active)! While we're certainly not encouraging you to dig out your calculators to determine the carbohydrate breakdown of your next meal, one thing is clear: research indicates that carbohydrates are vital to giving your body the energy it needs. Carbohydrates are digested more quickly than protein and fat and are more efficiently converted to the energy required to fuel your body. Having adequate carbohydrates will allow you to focus better, perform better in workouts, and reduce intense cravings.
Your Body Will Fight You If You Cut Out Carbohydrates
Because your body is heavily reliant on carbohydrates, it will fight you from a cellular level if you try to cut them out. Part of the reason so many people crave carbohydrates these days is because they have tried to eliminate them from their diet. As discussed in detail here, during periods of restriction, a neuroreceptor called Neuropeptide Y is released that triggers intense carbohydrate cravings. This, combined with feelings of deprivation, can result in episodes of overeating that so many people experience as a result of restriction.
"Which Carbohydrates Should I Choose?"
That's a great question! While no food is off limits, it works well to include a variety of carbohydrate foods you enjoy that also contain the nutrients your body needs. Higher fiber foods such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, beans, yogurt, smoothies, and whole grain breakfast cereals are great options. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, enjoying many different varieties is a great way to ensure you're getting the nutrition you need. While taking nutrition into consideration, it's also important to consider what foods will satisfy your cravings. It's much better to enjoy a brownie now than to restrict and then eat the whole pan later. By giving yourself permission to eat the foods you're craving and by ensuring that you regularly consume carbohydrates, you'll be on your way to higher energy levels, fewer binges, and a more enjoyable, sustainable diet. What's not to love?
For more help developing a healthier enjoyment of carbohydrates, schedule a visit with one of our Rethink Nutrition dietitians.