Oh, carbs! The diet industry loves to hate them, but as a dietitian I know there are so many reasons to love them! In this post we’ll answer some burning questions about carbs and address some of the biggest myths vs. facts about carbohydrates to set the record straight.
What are Carbohydrates?
The chemical makeup of carbohydrates is literally in the name, carbo-hydrates. They are molecular compounds made up of three elements: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
When strung together in specific chains, these elements form carbohydrates or saccharides. Monosaccharides like glucose and disaccharides like sucrose are small carbohydrate molecules, often known as sugars. Other larger carbohydrate molecules (polysaccharides) can be very large (e.g. starches).
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, or main nutrients found in food and drinks. The body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, which is the main source of energy for our cells, tissues and organs. When carbohydrates are broken down, the glucose can either be used immediately by the body or stored in our liver and muscles for later use. The stored form of glucose in our liver and muscles is called glycogen.
Types of Carbohydrates:
Also known as simple carbohydrates, these are the most basic form of carbs and are made up of the small carbohydrate molecules like mono- or disaccharides. These are the molecules found in table sugar, or the ones that can be added to candies, desserts or soda.
And no, they’re not all bad (I don’t think they’re “bad” at all), simple carbohydrates or sugars can also be found naturally in foods like fruit, vegetables and milk.
Starches or Complex Carbohydrates:
Made up of many saccharides or sugar molecules strung together, starches are larger molecules, also known as complex carbohydrates that must be broken down by the body for use.
Starches and complex carbohydrates include foods like bread, pasta and cereals. Some vegetables like potatoes, corn and peas are also starch sources.
Did you know that fibre is also a complex carbohydrate? The thing is, our bodies can’t break down most fibre. So when we include fibre-rich foods in our meals and snacks, it slows down the digestion process, helping us feel full. Fibre also helps to regulate our digestion and may also help lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
Fibre is found in many plant foods like fruit, vegetables, grains (particularly whole grains), nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Benefits of Carbohydrates
As I already mentioned, carbohydrates are our bodies’ preferred source of energy. I repeat, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. When broken down into glucose in the body, carbohydrates literally fuel our days, from sleeping, to breathing, to exercising and working.
Some evidence also suggests that whole grains and fibre from whole food carbohydrate sources can reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Of course, some carbohydrate sources provide more benefits and nutritional value than others. Think fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. These are often higher in beneficial fibre and micronutrients like essential vitamins and minerals.
That being said, less nutrient-dense carbohydrate aren’t unhealthy. In a pinch, they’ll still provide you with energy and fuel that you might need before a workout or a presentation at work. Remember, it’s what we do most often that matters, so grabbing a doughnut or cookie when the craving strikes isn’t something to fear.
Food Sources of Carbohydrates
Some common carbohydrate-rich foods include:
- Fruits, such as bananas, grapes, apples, oranges, berries, melons and more!
- Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, and peas. Non-starchy vegetables also contain carbohydrates, but not as many.
- Grains, such as bread, pasta, cereal, oats, rice, crackers and more.
- Legumes, including beans, chickpeas and lentils.
- Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, cottage cheese and cheese.
- Drinks like fruit juice, regular sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks.
- Snack foods or desserts like muffins, quick breads, cake, cookies, and candies.
How many carbohydrates should you eat daily?
Just like everything else with nutrition, there is no one-size-fits-all amount or magic number that will work for everyone.
The amount of carbohydrates you need each day will depend on your activity levels, your age, sex, health status and more. One thing I do think is important to note is that carbohydrates should not be feared. And yes, you can absolutely eat a source (or even more than one) of carbohydrates at each meal of the day.
On average, it is recommended that people get 45-65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Again, the percentage that is right for you will vary depending on your lifestyle, your needs, and your personal health. If you do have questions about your carbohydrate (or any other nutrition needs), talk to a dietitian. Depending on where you live, you can book an appointment with me!
Myths vs. Facts About Carbohydrates
Should you avoid carbohydrates?
This is a myth. Carbohydrates have long been demonized by various fad diets (hello, Atkins, South Beach and Keto) and diet culture in general. But the reality is that no, it isn’t necessary to avoid carbohydrates, even if you’re trying to lose weight. Carbohydrates are our bodies preferred source of energy, remember? So they’re definitely not bad, and you don’t need to avoid them.
Many people who start a low-carb diet see a quick bout of weight loss at the start. I hate to burst their bubble, but most of this is water weight. You see, for every gram of carbohydrates we store (in the form of glycogen, as mentioned above), we also retain 2-3 grams of water. When we deplete our glycogen storage, we’re also depleting that water storage, not burning fat.
Lastly, avoiding carbohydrates or sticking to a low-carb diet is really hard to do. While some of the research on low-carb diets like keto does show weight loss success, it’s hard to study low-carb diets long term because they’re generally hard to stick to. Remember, the right eating pattern for you is one that you can sustain for life.
Finally, carbohydrates are in a lot of nutritious foods, including fibre-rich fruits, vegetables and legumes. So avoiding or even limiting carbohydrates may really limit your food choices, fibre intake, and the ability to live a fun, balanced lifestyle without stressing about what you can and can’t eat.
Do excess carbohydrates get stored as fat?
When I was a teen, I’m pretty sure I read online that I shouldn’t eat too many carbs because eating too many causes them to be stored as fat.
Technically, this is true. But guess what? Excess anything, to the point where you’re eating more calories than your body requires, will be stored as fat. Yup, even broccoli, steak, or chia seeds. Carbohydrates alone are not the culprit here.
While we’re on the topic of fat storage, I want to remind you that storing fat is a completely normal, healthy thing that our bodies do. We need fat for many things, like protecting our organs, regulating our body temperature, and keeping us alive in a period of starvation. Yes, too much body fat can contribute to an increased health risk, but so can too little.
My advice? Focus less on aesthetics, numbers and your percentage of body fat and more on creating balanced, sustainable habits that make you feel good.
Will eating too many carbs cause diabetes?
This is another common diet myth. While diabetes is a condition characterized by impaired carbohydrate metabolism, carbohydrate consumption doesn’t cause diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is complex, as are the factors that can increase your risk for developing it. The likelihood of developing diabetes can increase due to a number of factors. These include age, family history, and the presence of other conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-diabetes and more. Lifestyle factors like smoking, physical activity and nutrition also play a role.
However, eating carbohydrates alone will not cause diabetes. What can increase your risk is consistent overconsumption – of any food. Generally, if you are regularly consuming more energy overall than your body needs (whether it’s from sweets, vegetables, cheese or anything else), this can contribute to your diabetes risk. Not carbohydrates or sugar alone.
The Bottom Line:
I hope this post helped clear up some of the myths and facts about carbohydrates for you. The bottom line is that carbohydrates are not inherently bad at all – despite often being demonized by the diet industry.
In fact, carbohydrates are pretty dang good! They’re a source of energy, fuel for our bodies, and many nutritious sources of carbs come packaged with gut-friendly fibre.
We’re all unique, and the amount of carbohydrates that make each and every one of us feel good will vary. But for most of us, there is no need to cut them out or restrict our carbohydrate intake. Carbs are our friends!
Connect with Hannah Magee, RD!
Liked this post? Questions? Be sure to leave a comment below and let me know!