Are Carbs The Enemy?

Are Carbs the Enemy?

Carbs are highly controversial these days, for years they have taken the blame for obesity, with the big debate on whether we should do keto, or count macros or whole30.

The dietary guidelines suggest that we get about half of our calories from carbohydrates.

On the other hand, some claim that carbs cause obesity and type 2 diabetes, and that most people should be avoiding them. 

There are good arguments on both sides, and it appears that carbohydrate requirements depend largely on the individual.

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What Are Carbs?

Carbs, or carbohydrates, are molecules that have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. In nutrition, "carbs" refers to one of the three macronutrients. The other two are protein and fat.

  • Carbs are fuel. Glucose is the primary fuel for most of your cells and is the preferred energy for the brain and nervous system, the red blood cells and the placenta and fetus. If you have available glucose than your body needs for energy, you will store glucose as glycogen (glycogenesis) in your liver and skeletal muscle. When your blood glucose drops, as it does when you’re sleeping or fasting, the liver will break down glycogen (glycogenolysis) and release glucose into your blood. Muscle glycogen fuels your activity. The body can store just a limited amount of glucose, so when the glycogen stores are full, extra glucose is stored as fat and can be used as energy when needed.

  • Carbs spare protein. If you go without eating for an extended period or simply consume too little carbohydrate, your glycogen stores will quickly deplete. Your body will grab protein from your diet (if available), skeletal muscles and organs and convert its amino acids into glucose (gluconeogenesis) for energy and to maintain normal blood glucose levels. This can cause muscle loss, problems with immunity and other functions of proteins in the body. That’s how critical it is to maintain normal blood glucose levels to feed parts of your body and your brain.

  • Carbs prevent ketosis. Even when fat is used for fuel, the cells need a bit of carbohydrate to completely break it down. Otherwise, the liver produces ketone bodies, which can eventually build up to unsafe levels in the blood causing a condition called ketosis. If you ever noticed the smell of acetone or nail polish remover on the breath of a low-carb dieter, you have smelled the effects of ketosis. Ketosis can also cause the blood to become too acidic and the body to become dehydrated.

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Low-Carb Diets Are

Great For Some People

No discussion about carbs is complete without mentioning low-carb diets. 

Studies show that low-carb diets cause more weight loss and lead to greater improvement in various health markers, including HDL (the "good") cholesterol, blood triglycerides, blood sugar, blood pressure and others.

For people who are obese, or have metabolic syndrome and/or type 2 diabetes, low-carb diets can have life-saving benefits.

However, just because low-carb diets are useful for weight loss and people with certain metabolic problems, they are definitely not the answer for everyone.

"Carbs" Are Not The Cause of Obesity

Restricting carbs can often (at least partly) reverse obesity.

However, this does not mean that the carbs were what caused the obesity in the first place.

This is actually a myth, and there is a ton of evidence against it.

Humans have been eating carbs for thousands of years, in some form or another.

Keep in mind that many populations have remained in excellent health while eating a high-carb diet, such as the Okinawans, Kitavans and Asian rice eaters.

What they all have in common is that they eat  real, unprocessed foods.

However, populations that eat a lot of refined carbohydrates and processed foods tend to be sick and unhealthy.

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How to Make the Right Choices

As a general rule, carbohydrates that are in their natural, fiber-rich form are healthy, while those that have been stripped of their fiber are not.

Most carbs are categorized as either "good" or "bad" 

Good Carbs: Complex Carbs

  • Vegetables: All of them. It is best to eat a variety of vegetables every day.

  • Whole fruits: Apples, bananas, strawberries, etc.

  • Legumes: Lentils, kidney beans, peas, etc.

  • Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, etc.

  • Seeds: Chia seeds, pumpkin seeds.

  • Whole grains: Choose grains that are truly whole, as in pure oats, quinoa, brown rice, etc.

  • Tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.

  • People who are trying to restrict carbohydrates need to be careful with the whole grains, legumes, tubers and high-sugar fruit.

Bad Carbs: Simple Carbs

  • Sugary drinks: Coca cola, Pepsi, Vitamin water, etc. Sugary drinks are some of the unhealthiest things you can put into your body.

  • Fruit juices: Unfortunately, fruit juices may have similar metabolic effects as sugar-sweetened beverages.

  • White bread: These are refined carbohydrates that are low in essential nutrients and bad for metabolic health. This applies to most commercially available breads.

  • Pastries, cookies and cakes: These tend to be very high in sugar and refined wheat.

  • Ice cream: Most types of ice cream are very high in sugar, although there are exceptions.

  • Candies and chocolates: If you’re going to eat chocolate, choose quality dark chocolate.

  • French fries and potato chips: Whole potatoes are healthy, but french fries and potato chips are not.

These foods may be fine in moderation for some people, but many will do best by avoiding them as much as possible.