Carbs…Good or Bad?

Carbs have been portrayed as the enemy to weight loss in recent years. Many think that their presence in a diet will wreak havoc on their weight goals. I have great news for my bread loving people! Carbs are friends and food!  I invite you to take a moment to allow me to educate you on what carbohydrates are, what foods fall into this category, and how they can actually be part of a healthy balanced diet. Remember nutrition is a science, so get ready for a small science lesson! As we talk about the different types of carbohydrates remember that the main function of any sugar/carb is to provide the body with energy. I will use the words, sugar and carb interchangeably because sugar is a type of carbohydrate and both provide energy for your body’s cells. You will also see that I use the word Glucose which is the type of sugar in our blood and is the main source of energy for our brain. 

To begin, let’s define carbohydrates.  A carbohydrate is a group of foods that are made up of different types of sugars; such as glucose, fructose, galactose, and more. There are different types of carbohydrates that perform different functions. When we think of carbohydrates we often think of bread, rice, cake, cookies, and potatoes. But what if I told you the carbohydrate category actually holds fruits, vegetables, sugary treats, and grains? This often comes as a surprise to many of my clients. Fruits and vegetables have carbohydrates just like grains and sugary treats do. Before you start throwing out ALL fruits and vegetables from your diet let’s talk about the difference between these types of carbohydrates and how they affect the body. The two most common types are Simple Sugars and Complex Carbs.

Simple Sugars provide quick energy for the body. Don’t let the name “Simple Sugars” send you into a frenzy. The title does not take away the value and nutrient content of these foods. Simple Sugars are made up of monosaccharides and disaccharides, which is just a fancy way of saying that your food has one type of sugar or two types of sugar.  Foods that might fall into this category are fruits, vegetables, white rice, and foods with processed white flour such as cake and cookies. It’s important to note that just because fruits and vegetables are in the same category as historically “unhealthy foods” does not mean that they themselves are unhealthy. It simply means that healthy or not, foods with these types of sugar will be processed very quickly. If a food is processed quickly then the body can use that sugar for energy much quicker. Simple Sugars are essential to exercises that require a quick release of energy, such as sprinting. 

Complex Carbohydrates are polysaccharides which are made up of a lot of different types of sugar. They differ from Simple Sugars because they take longer to break down and digest because they have more to breakdown. For example, the primary sugar in fruit is fructose which means the body only has to breakdown fructose. This causes energy to be released quicker to the body. A Complex Carbohydrate like brown rice is made of three different types of sugar (glucose, maltotriose, and maltose) which means it will take longer for the body to breakdown this complex food. This type of food will provide slow energy release. Complex Carbs are great for long distance or endurance exercises that require long lasting energy.

Though the body processes these carbohydrates at a different speed, it does not affect weight in the way we often assume. When it comes to weight loss the biggest impactor is actually calories, not carbs. Calories are the energy that is provided through food. Our body uses energy for a variety of different reasons. We need energy for our heart to beat, lungs to breathe, and cells to perform. If you’re exercising, taking a test, or just walking to your car, your body will require energy. Calories provide this energy through protein, carbohydrates, and fat.  Weight loss is simply an energy deficit. When we eat, our body processes our food and creates the energy that we need.  When we don’t use up the energy that we consume by walking to the car, exercising, or performing basic functions then it is stored on our body as fat to prepare ourselves for times of energy deficit. Now the best way to lose weight isn’t to cut specific food groups out, it’s to limit our calorie intake. 

Vegetables contain the same type of carbohydrates that a piece of cake does. This may come as a surprise since we have demonized sweet treats as a society. The difference between the cake and that vegetable, when it comes to weight management, is not their carbohydrate content but their calorie content. It’s simple, vegetables are only made up of vegetable. Nothing has been added to it. Where a cake is the product of many ingredients that are providing calories; such as the eggs, oil, flour, and sugar. Now if we were to take sugar from the cake and the same amount of sugar from our vegetable they would actually equal the same amount of calories. Because sugar is sugar to the body. The reason that you see drastic weight loss in diets like paleo and keto, isn’t because of the types of foods that they are cutting out, it’s because they are simply lowering their calories by eliminating these foods.

It’s important to understand that carbs are not the enemy of weight loss, and neither are calories. All food can be part of a healthy balanced diet that allows you to lose or maintain weight. When it comes to nutrition the best rule of thumb is moderation. When we learn to incorporate all types of food into our diets in a healthy and balanced way, then we create a sustainable lifestyle.

 Cutting out certain macronutrients can actually be more harmful than helpful. There is a variety of science-based evidence that demonstrates the vital role of carbohydrates in the diet. Carbohydrates are essential to energy production, provide insoluble and soluble fiber, and can aid in weight loss and weight maintenance.


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Published by Sara Rima, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and weight loss expert.

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