Are carbohydrates bad for us?

I've meet many who think carbohydrates are bad for us, but is it really all bad? Let's sort out the facts from fiction!


What are the functions of carbohydrates?

  1. Primary energy source for the body and brain. Besides from this, carbohydrates can actually be stored as ”glycogen” in the muscles and the liver which can be used when they body needs additional energy such as when you are working out or have not eaten in a while. However, if you are not that active your body really does not need much carbohydrates compared to an elite athlete.

  2. Protective against disease. The right kind of carbohydrates such as whole grains and dietary fiber may help in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

  3. Digestive health. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate which is crucial for optimal digestive health and bowel movements (it's a natural "detox" which we like!)

  4. Microbiome. These are the bacteria living in our gut, which we are finding out are more involved in our health than what we had previously thought. Fiber and starch, which is a type of carbohydrate that we get from our diets, is not digestible by humans and provide, to varying degrees, substrate for colonic microbial fermentation which leads to the production of something called short chain fatty acids (SCFA), which is really good for our microbiome.

  5. Weight control. Existing evidence supports how different carbohydrate sources such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help with weight control.



Are all carbs created equal?

No, they are not. Some carbohydrates provide more nutritional value and are broken down differently compared to others. This is where I encounter the most confusion, where people think just because it is carbohydrates then all carbohydrates are "unhealthy" and they over consume on other food groups instead which really does not help them reach their health goals and can even make their health worse.


Can I eat carbohydrates as part of a healthy diet?

Absolutely! It all comes down to the type and the amount you are consuming. What you want to focus on are the healthier options of carbohydrates because they provide more fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants which are great for us, both for our current health and disease prevention. If you are very active physically you can also look at when you are consuming them where something called ”nutrition timing” will play a role.


What are the different types of carbohydrates?

Some carbohydrates are broken down faster and some slower which impacts our blood sugar, satiety, certain hormones and in some cases our energy. Important to note however is that what you eat the carbohydrate with (no matter the type), the amount and how active you are also plays a role in how fast it is broken down. There are different types of carbohydrates including:

  • Sugars. It is the simplest form of carbohydrates and it broken down relatively quick and occurs naturally in some foods such as fruits, honey, vegetables, milk and milk products.

  • Starch: is more of a complex carbohydrate meaning it is broken down slower compared to simple carbohydrates which is also great for our microbiome. It occurs naturally in foods such as vegetables, grains, beans, and peas.

  • Fiber: is a complex carbohydrate, also broken down slower compared to simple and also found naturally in vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, and fruits.


Here is a list of carbohydrate sources that:

1) Are rich in fiber

2) Provide good nutritional value

3) Are broken down slower in the body

  • Fruits (mainly those you eat with the skin)

  • Vegetables (are in general much lower in total carbohydrate amount compared to fruits)

  • Beans

  • Lentils

  • Whole grains

  • Oatmeal

  • Quinoa

  • Teff

  • Millet

  • Amaranth

  • Buckwheat

  • Brown rice

  • Corn

  • Beets

  • Sweet potatoes


Here is a list of carbohydrates that:

1) Have lower/no fiber content

2) Still provides nutritional value

3) Are broken down faster in the body compared to the above list

  • Fruit juice

  • Banana

  • Grapes

  • Cherries

  • Watermelon

  • Honey

  • Dates

  • Coconut water

  • Oat milk

  • Milk

  • Prunes

  • Figs

  • Yoghurt

  • Apricots


Here is a list of simple carbohydrates that:

1) Have lower/no fiber content

2) Are lower in nutritional value

3) And in which you to limit

  • White flour

  • Sugar

  • Syrup

  • Marmalades

  • Jams

  • Sweetened/sugary beverages and drinks

  • Pastry

  • Candy

  • Ice cream


Does a low-carb diet help with weight loss?

Short-term, it could yes (almost with like any diet!). However, the weight loss may be due to other reasons as well such as:

  • Cutting back on simple/processed sugars and as a result also cutting back on additional calories.

  • Less trigger foods. From my experience those who eat more simple/processed sugars tend also to have more of a sweet tooth (especially if they do not eat enough real food) and this can also make some people to simply eat more throughout the day. So if the person cuts back on trigger foods, it may also influence the total caloric intake and they type of foods one consume later on.

  • Eating less because your eliminating carbohydrates, which also means overall calorie intake decreases which can lead to weight loss.

  • Loss of glycogen which is stored carbohydrates along with water. This is one of the reasons why people lose weight in the beginning when they cut out carbohydrates because they also lose glycogen, meaning your losing water weight as well and not only necessarily fat.

  • Loss of muscle mass happens automatically when someone loses weight, how much muscle mass one loses is more determined of how much and what your exercising along with how and what you are eating. This might also be a reason many even gain more weight than their usual weight after they go back to their "regular diets" because the person have less muscle mass than before, which also means burning less calories while not working out. I have encountered this way too many times.


On top of this, there is no research supporting a low carbohydrate diet being the most effective when it comes to long-term weight loss. Many of the times, people also have a hard time following a low carb diet for the rest of their lives as it can be very restrictive, but it is also important to remember everyone is different. So just because it works for someone does not mean it should be applied to everyone. I have helped many clients who have included healthy carbohydrates in their diets and have managed to both lose weight and kept the weight off in the long-run. In other words, if a person include healthy carbohydrates in the appropriate amounts does not automatically mean they will gain weight.


How much carbohydrates should one consume?

This is very individual depending on who you are, activity level, age, health status, blood work, body symtoms, what your goals are, etc. So there is not one right answer for all.


Disclaimer

All material provided on this blog is provided for informational and educational purposes only and should not be applied for everyone because there are exceptions depending on who you are. In addition, if you are of have any of the conditions below then the type and amount of carbohydrates might be of more importance:

  • Type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes

  • Elevated Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c-värde)

  • Elevated triglycerides

  • Metabolic syndrome

  • Elite athlete or if you workout a lot



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