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Are Carbs The Enemy?

They've been blamed for everything from the obesity epidemic to our skyrocketing rates of diabetes and heart disease. But do they really deserve all the bad press they're getting? What are carbohydrates and why are they getting such a bad rap?

What are carbs?

Carbohydrates are one of the main types of macromolecules that your body needs to function properly. They're found in all fruits and vegetables, as well as pasta, bread, legumes, dairy and any foods that have sugar. Like the other main macromolecules— fat and protein—your body breaks down and processes carbohydrates for a range of different purposes. Most importantly, carbs are broken down into simple sugars like glucose that your body uses as its main source of energy.

Carbs. It's complicated

There are two types of carbs: simple and complex.

Simple carbs are small and easy for your body to process. Lots of processed foods contain them because they enhance flavour and help foods to last longer. When they're in processed foods, simple sugars can make your blood sugar spike, which makes you feel drained and craving even more sugar.

Fruit and dairy also contain simple carbs, but the sugar that comes from these enters the bloodstream more slowly, so you don't get that nasty spike in blood sugar. These foods also have vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and protein that are essential for your body, so they're normally pretty healthy.

Complex carbs, like the name suggests, are more complex. They're chains of sugars that have been linked together. Complex carbs include starch and fibre, which are found in vegetables, legumes and wholegrains. These carbs take longer to break down, or can't be broken down at all, so they don't raise your blood sugar levels as much, and they can help you feel full for longer. Foods that have complex carbs also tend to have lots of beneficial essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals.

So, what's the truth?

The truth is that it's okay to eat most foods in moderation. Cutting out an entire food group from your diet may work for your short-term goals, but such a restrictive diet can be difficult to maintain, and it can ultimately be unhealthy if you're not careful.

It's important to keep in mind that people will process carbohydrates differently depending on a huge range of factors, including their lifestyle, microbiome (their gut bacteria) and their genetics. A diet that works for one person may not work for someone else. It's worth taking the time to figure out what works for you.

Stay friends with carbs

If you aim for a balanced diet, keep track of your portion sizes and focus on eating fresh, unprocessed foods like vegetables and fruits, wholegrains and legumes, then carbohydrates can be an enjoyable part of every meal.

So, what's the truth?

The truth is that it's okay to eat most foods in moderation. Cutting out an entire food group from your diet may work for your short-term goals, but such a restrictive diet can be difficult to maintain, and it can ultimately be unhealthy if you're not careful.

It's important to keep in mind that people will process carbohydrates differently depending on a huge range of factors, including their lifestyle, microbiome (their gut bacteria) and their genetics. A diet that works for one person may not work for someone else. It's worth taking the time to figure out what works for you.

Stay friends with carbs

If you aim for a balanced diet, keep track of your portion sizes and focus on eating fresh, unprocessed foods like vegetables and fruits, wholegrains and legumes, then carbohydrates can be an enjoyable part of every meal.

Why your body needs carbs

What all of the anti-carb diets out there seem to ignore is that carbohydrates are your body's number-one preferred form of energy. In fact, your red blood cells and central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) alone burn through roughly 80 grams of carbohydrates per day. (Hence why you become, uh, irritable as you "adapt" to a low-carb diet.) Sure, you don't have to eat them to live or put one foot in front of the other—your body can convert fat and protein to energy, too—but we convert carbs way more efficiently and arguably with far better results.

"If we do not get enough glucose through carbohydrate intake, then our bodies will produce glucose from protein through a process called gluconeogenesis," explains Jim White, a registered dietitian and fitness specialist in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "Over time this process may lend itself to weight loss, however maintaining muscle mass will be a challenge." He notes that carbohydrates are also vital to your body's ability to build muscle and, over time, less muscle mass means slower metabolic rates and higher body fat percentages. Basically, the opposite result that people want from a diet.

Why active people need carbs even more

Low-carb diets can also wreak havoc on muscle health by impairing your ability to work out. Your muscles are what experts call a "glucose sink," meaning they go through a ton of carbs. "Carbs are the primary fuel for muscle contraction," explains Kelly Pritchett, an associate professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University and a certified specialist in sports dietetics. "If you want to perform at a higher level, you need carbs."

When you train above roughly 70 percent of your VO2 max (the peak amount of oxygen your body can take in and use in a minute), most of your energy has to come from either stored carbs in your liver and muscles, called glycogen, or carbs floating through your bloodstream in the form of glucose.

Where you get your carbs matters

Perhaps even more importantly: Carbs don't occur in isolation. Carbohydrates are simply a macronutrient, and one that comes packaged in foods alongside lots of other nutrients. "Carbs also contain important nutrients and phytochemicals such as vitamin C, potassium, and calcium that we may not find in other fat- and protein-based sources," Pritchett says.

Of note: Fiber is a carbohydrate, and one that research overwhelmingly shows we need more of for optimal health, including maintaining a healthy weight. One 2015 study in Annals of Internal Medicine found that when people simply increase their fiber intake, they end up losing just as much weight as they do when they go on full-fledged diets. After all, women need roughly 25 grams of fiber per day for good health and men need 38 grams, but most Americans only consume about half that amount, according to the American Dietetic Association. One reason for that is because even though as a society we eat plenty of carbs, most of them aren't from fiber-rich whole grains or vegetables.

No, more often our carbs are coming from ultra-processed foods. One recent study published in BMJ Open found that foods like frozen pizza and soda make up more than half of all the calories Americans consume in a given day. Previous research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that three out of four people in the US get more than 10 percent of their daily calories from high-fructose corn syrup and other refined sweeteners.

How to use carbs to hit your health and fitness goals

Per Solomon's study, getting roughly half of your daily calories from carbs is a good way to go, longevity-wise. For someone eating 2,000 calories per day, that works out to roughly 250 grams of carbohydrates daily. (Each gram of carbs contains four calories, and in case you're wondering, and each gram of protein also contains four, while fat has nine.) To help you visualize that amount, there are 43 grams of carbs in every cup of cooked spaghetti, 40 grams in a cup of black beans, 16 grams in a cup of butternut squash, and 12 grams in one slice of wheat bread.



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