Between festive holiday cookies and the seemingly endless list of craveable comfort foods, winter is really carbohydrates’ time to shine. But you’re likely feeling conflicted or confused about what role carbs play in your daily diet; and popular plans like keto and Whole30 certainly aren’t helping clear things up. So, here’s the bottom line on whether carbs are actually bad for you, which ones are “good,” and why cutting carbs could be a mistake.
First Things First, What Are Carbohydrates?
A carbohydrate is a general term used to describe one of the macronutrients our body needs for optimal function (others include fat and protein). Getting a little more specific, carbohydrates are further classified into two categories—simple and complex.
The Carb-Sugar Connection
Where carbs get a bad rap is the connection to sugar—most carbohydrates break down into glucose, providing the body with energy, which is a good thing. The main difference, however, is that complex carbs (vegetables, beans, and whole grains, for example) usually come with necessary extras, like vitamins and nutrients.
Which Carbs Are ‘Good’?
“While all forms of carbohydrates can fit into your diet, certain types of carbs do have more nutrients than others,” explains Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating counselor in New York City. “Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains all contain fiber, which not only helps to keep us full and satisfied, but can help improve our gastrointestinal function and is linked to lower risk of certain chronic diseases including heart disease and some types of cancer.”
And then there are carbs that naturally contain sugar but are also a great source of vitamins and minerals—think fruit and dairy.
Long Story Short
Lumping all carbs into one group that you categorically avoid isn’t really fair.
It’s time to drop the stigma against carbs, says Rumsey. “There is nothing wrong with carbohydrates and in fact they are extremely important to our body. Further, we need to eat carbohydrates, as they are the only fuel source that our brain and nervous system can use,” she explains (hence why “brain fog” is often a side effect of low-carb diets). “Carbs are also the preferred form of energy for all of our other bodily functions.”
The Dangers of Cutting Carbs Completely
Rumsey also warns against limiting food groups, carbs or otherwise (bar a legitimate allergy).
“I still find that most people have been taught that carbs are ‘bad’ and that they shouldn’t eat them,” says Rumsey. “But your brain interprets any type of restriction as a sign that starvation is coming, so it increases the cravings. When you make carbs ‘off limits’ or have been on-and-off diets that cut down on carbs, eventually this leads to you wanting even more carbohydrates.”
Related Reading: What Exactly Is Intuitive Eating?
Carbohydrate Common Sense
The carb consensus boils down to common sense. Fuel your body by loading up on carbs rich in vitamins, nutrients, and fiber (whole grains, vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes); enjoy pasta and bread (Rumsey’s favorite carbs) in moderation; and limit calorie-packed sweets.
Turns out carbs aren’t so complicated after all.
Header image courtesy of fcafotodigital / Getty Images