What do “Keto”, “Paleo”, and “Atkins” all have in common? They are all names of low-carbohydrate diets, aimed at helping people lose weight. And they are pretty popular—I’d be willing to bet you’ve heard of at least one of them, maybe you have even tried the low-carb thing yourself. Or maybe you grew up on the other side of the spectrum, like me, being a multi-sport athlete who was always told to “carb-load” the night before a big game. We needed the energy to perform, and a salad just wouldn’t cut it.
I have always equated carbs with energy, but recently I’ve been hearing a lot about how carbs should be cut out of your diet, especially for those wanting to lose weight. I’m not sure if any of you have had similar experiences, being caught in the middle of this debate, but I decided that before I jumped to conclusions about whether or not to eliminate carbs from my diet, I needed to do a little research. After researching and reflecting over my personal experience, I am convinced that carbohydrates are a crucial and necessary part of a healthy diet.
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For those of you who are undecided, or maybe even leaning towards eliminating carbs, I would invite you to keep reading. I’ll share my journey and the reasons why I can confidently advocate carbohydrates. Remember, I was pretty unsure when I started.
To start my quest, I decided that the first logical step was to get a more proficient understanding from reputable sources of what carbohydrates actually are. I used to live in Minnesota, so I would often brush shoulders with the Mayo Clinic. Knowing them to be the best hospital in America, according the U.S. News & World Report (“Where Are America’s Best Hospitals?” 2018), I decided to start there.
What does the Mayo Clinic have to say about Carbohydrates? They first explain that there are three main forms of carbohydrates, namely sugar, starch, and fiber. They define each as follows:
These basic definitions will be useful in navigating the carb vs. no-carb debate. We will dive deeper into the biology of carbohydrates a little later, but first I want to mention which side of the dispute Mayo Clinic is on, recognizing them as one of the “team-leaders”. They acknowledge the fact that “carbohydrates often get a bad rap, especially when it comes to weight gain” and but then affirm that “carbohydrates aren’t all bad. Because of their numerous health benefits, carbohydrates have a rightful place in your diet.” The major health benefits they list include “providing energy”, “protecting against disease”, and “controlling weight” (Mayo Clinic Staff “Choose Your Carbs Wisely”). Today I will explore the carb vs. no-carb debate in relation to the first and third health benefits, because energy and weight(loss) are actually the two biggest arenas of which the carb vs. no-carb gladiator combat takes place.
To be able to understand how carbohydrates affect our energy levels, we need to first understand an important process named glycolysis, and its effect on our blood sugar levels. Glycolysis is the process by which our bodies break down food and convert it into usable energy so we can think, move, and act; Our bodies also use a large portion of this energy to regulate our daily metabolic functions and prevent disease.
This energy comes from breaking the chemical bonds holding the food molecules together, which our bodies collect and use. This process, however, takes place in millions of cells. How do our bodies get the food from our stomach to our cells?
Web MD, the leading online health domain, succinctly summarizes this transition for us. “There [in the stomach], acids and enzymes break it [food] down into tiny pieces. During that process, glucose is released. It goes into your intestines where it’s absorbed. From there, it passes into your bloodstream. Once in the blood, insulin helps glucose get to your cells” (“What Is Glucose?”).
To summarize, food is broken down in our stomach and intestine to glucose-molecules. Those molecules are released into the bloodstream and then absorbed by your cells with the help of insulin. In your cells those molecules are broken down even further into useable energy.
Having explained this process, you may feel that we departed from our original discussion, but I promise this tangent is necessary. Here’s why: did you notice the term “glucose” being described as the molecule that provides our bodies with energy? Well guess where glucose comes from… yep, carbohydrates!
Again, from the Mayo Clinic, “Carbohydrates are your body’s main fuel source… the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories” (Mayo Clinic Staff “Choose Your Carbs Wisely”). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is written by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They, along with Mayo Clinic, are far from alone—carbohydrates are well established as the most easily convertible fuel source.
And yet, there is huge debate between whether or not we should include carbohydrates in our diet. If carbohydrates are our best fuel source, why would anyone argue against that? To answer that question, I am going to ask you another one.
Have you ever felt super tired after eating a huge meal, especially right after lunch? That sluggish feeling is because your body is focusing its resources on digestion and glycolysis, releasing a high level of glucose in your blood. This tired feeling is one reason why people advocate against eating carbs, but we need a little more information before we jump to conclusions.
The truth is that there are different types of carbohydrates. Some are good, and some are bad. Bad carbohydrates cause these high releases of sugar into your blood and make you tired. Good carbohydrates don’t, and actually provide you with real, sustained energy.
Your real focus should be on what type of carbohydrates you consume, instead of whether or not you should get rid of carbs altogether—the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath-water! This is a definite no-no for both babies and carbs, so let me explain.
The major argument for weight-loss made by many no-carb activists can be summarized by the following, from well-known TIME Magazine.
Reducing your intake of calorie-dense carbs automatically reduces the amount of calories you’re consuming on a daily basis, which forces your body to burn fat stored around your midsection for energy, rather than the sugars it takes from carbohydrates… It’s not calories that satiate your hunger, it’s nutrients: fiber, protein and healthy fats. Unfortunately, simple refined carbs are lacking in all three, even as they fill your body with fast, cheap calories (Eat This, Not That 2015, italics added).
At first glance, this is a compelling argument. Everything they said is true, so how does one reconcile the apparent discrepancy between “carbs are energy” and “carbs are empty calories” arguments? We first need to realize that we are trying to compare apples and oranges, we can’t “stereotype” carbohydrates into one blanket category.
As mentioned previously, the truth is that there are actually different kinds of carbohydrates, some good and some not so good. You’ll notice that I italicized “calorie-dense carbs” and “simple refined carbs” in the above source. These kinds of carbs fall into the “not so good” category because they are processed and are very, very high in added sugars—donuts, cakes, cookies, pastries, etc.
Mayo Clinic, in a different article than previously mentioned, clarifies the categories of carbohydrates. “Carbohydrates can be simple or complex. They can further be classified as simple refined (table sugar), simple natural (lactose in milk and fructose in fruit), complex refined (white flour) and complex natural (whole grains or beans)” (Mayo Clinic Staff “Low-carb diet: Can it help you lose weight?”). There is a dual dichotomy represented in these categories: simple vs. complex and refined vs. natural.
Let’s start with simple vs. complex. Simple carbs are sugars, as defined at the beginning, and complex carbs are starches and fiber. Generally, simple sugars are unhealthy and complex carbohydrates are healthy. Why? Let’s go back to our understanding of blood sugar.
The Mayo Clinic goes on to explain that simple sugars enter the bloodstream almost immediately and cause a spike in your blood sugar, giving you a quick burst of energy, but then a just-as-quick crash as your body mass-produces insulin. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and enter the bloodstream more slowly, allowing the glucose-molecules to be transported to the cells without a spike in insulin. They finish by stating that the “idea behind the low-carb diet is that decreasing carbs lowers insulin levels, which causes the body to burn stored fat for energy and ultimately leads to weight loss” (Mayo Clinic Staff “Low carb diet: Can it help you lose weight?”).
Harvard Medical School agrees with the Mayo Clinic. They affirm that “All carbohydrates turn into glucose and raise our blood sugar. But some do it faster than others. Controlling blood glucose is important for weight management as well as diabetes control” (Harvard Medical School 2015). Unfortunately, advocates of the low-carb diet lump both simple and complex carbs into the high-insulin category, when it’s the simple carbohydrates that are the problem.
Furthermore, there is an aspect of natural vs. refined carbs. Harvard Medical School explains that “Refined carbohydrates, such as white rice and white pasta, have had their fiber and nutrients removed. Whole grains, such as brown rice and whole-wheat pasta, have not. Therefore, the glucose from refined carbohydrates can get into the blood stream faster than the glucose from whole grains” (Harvard Medical School 2015). Because refined carbohydrates have had their nutrients removed, they give you the calories without providing the corresponding energy.
Eating simple and refined carbs causes people to gain weight because they need to consume a higher amount of calories in order to get the same amount of nutrients as they would otherwise get from complex, whole grains. These added, unnecessary calories are then stored, resulting in weight gain.
If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that all informed no/low-carb proponents use the terms processed, refined, simple, calorie-dense, empty calorie, and other similar terms in their arguments, in relation to both energy and weight. They really are arguing against bad carbohydrates, but uninformed readers aren’t aware of the difference. They see the statistics for the bad carbohydrates and assume that it goes for all carbs, which simply isn’t true.
The black-and-white argument between a yes-or-no answer to the carb question is not really an argument at all, only a mirage. Don’t waste your energy worrying about something that doesn’t exist. Instead, for those looking to have more energy and/or lose weight, your choice should not be between carbs or no carbs; your choice should be between simple/refined carbs or natural/complex carbs.
Luckily, for you and for me, it is not difficult to distinguish between good and bad carbohydrates. Healthline, one of the largest online health domains, gives us a general guideline of healthy and unhealthy carbohydrates, as shown in the following table, “How to Make the Right Choices” (Gunnars 2016). Wherever you may be at on your journey towards a healthier lifestyle, the right carbohydrates will give you the energy you need to achieve your goals. Take the steps today to incorporate the right carbs — healthy, whole, and energy-sustaining — for your greater well-being.
Eat This, Not That. “6 Amazing Body Changes When You Give Up Carbs.” TIME Magazine, 04 Sept. 2015, http://time.com/4021985/simple-carbohydrates/.
“Glycolysis.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/
Gunnars, Kris. “Good Carbs, Bad Carbs — How to Make the Right Choices.” Healthline Media, Inc, 18 August 2016, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/good-carbs-bad-carbs.
Harvard Medical School. “Carbohydrates—Good or Bad for You?” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard University, July 2015, https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/carbohydrates–good-or-bad-for-you.
Klemm, Megan. “What Do You Know About Your Sugar.” Something to Chew, Springfield Clinic, 28 Sept. 2017, http://somethingtochew.com/tag/diabetes/
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Choose Your Carbs Wisely.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 7 Feb. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/carbohydrates/art-20045705.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Low-carb diet: Can it help you lose weight?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 29 Aug 2017, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/low-carb-diet/art-20045831
“What Is Glucose?” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/diabetes/glucose-diabetes#1.
“Where Are America’s Best Hospitals?” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 2018, health.usnews.com/best-hospitals.
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