You either embrace them as part of every meal or wish or you could cut them out entirely. But while you should be mindful of how many grams of carbs you're packing on your plate, quality is just as important as quantity when it comes to your health.
Surprisingly enough, Americans are eating fewer total carbs and fewer refined carbs than they did in the 90s. But despite eating less of the macronutrient and some positive shifts in nutrient balance, we're still opting for too many low-quality carbs than dietary guidelines recommend, according to a September 2019 study published in JAMA. In fact, researchers looked at dietary trends over an 18-year period and found that whole grains and fruit accounted for only 9 percent of the typical American diet.
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The bottom line: We're still falling short in fueling our body the right way, with the right carbs. That's why we spoke to dietitians about what you can do to keep carbs in your diet.
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1. You Think All Carbs Are the Same and Eat the Wrong Ones
"As a dietitian, I see people grouping all types of carbs together and demonizing them all," says Sarah Grace Meckelberg, RD. Cupcakes, fries and other foods lacking nutrients may fall into the overall classification of a carbohydrate, but that doesn't mean all carb-containing foods deliver the same nutritional value (or lack thereof).
"An awful lot of carb-rich foods are the very foods that boost nutrition and help fight disease."
"Oranges and orange soda don't belong in the same category any more than pinto beans and jelly beans," says Jill Weisenberger, RDN, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide. She recommends focusing more on the nutrient density rather than its overall classification. "An awful lot of carb-rich foods are the very foods that boost nutrition and help fight disease," she explains.
A June 2014 manuscript published in the journal Lancet concludes that it's more crucial to consider the nutrient-density of your carbohydrates (and fats) than it is to focus solely on the quantity of those macronutrients. Highly processed carbohydrates are associated with greater risk for chronic disease while switching to minimally processed whole grains, fruits and legumes can help lower those risks.
Need another reason to believe that quality matters? Low-quality carbs such as white bread, white rice, pastries, sweetened beverages and chips — besides lacking in nutrient quality — are quickly metabolized in your body. This leads to blood sugar spikes that eventually come crashing down, leaving you with hunger cravings, says Cheryl Mussatto, RD, author of The Nourished Brain.
“When it comes to what you're eating on average, it's about picking ‘smart carbs’ — those that are nutrient-dense and that aren't extremely processed, refined or contain artificial ingredients,” Meckelberg says.
Put more focus on the nutrient density of food instead of making food choices based solely on how many grams of carbs it contains. Mussato recommends choosing more vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and whole grains (like oatmeal) instead. “Their ‘natural package’ of essential vitamins, minerals and fiber keeps blood sugar fluctuations in check, helping to reduce the need to overeat,” says Mussato.
2. You Cut Carbs to Lose Weight
The booming popularity of keto and other low-carb diets might trick you into thinking that skipping out on quality carbs is an easy and quick weight-loss fix.
When you cut carbs, you're also cutting foods rich in fiber, a very important type of carb. Research shows that the high fiber content in complex carbohydrates can contribute to weight loss success.
While cutting carbs may help you lose water weight since carbs hold onto water, that doesn't translate to long-term fat loss. In fact, the potential long-term health risks of low-carb diets such as keto are still up in the air because most of the research done on these eating plans haven't lasted more than a year, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What we do know is that when you cut carbs, you're also cutting foods rich in fiber, a very important type of carb. Research shows that the high fiber content in complex carbohydrates (including beans/legumes, whole grains and vegetables) can contribute to weight loss success.
A 2017 study published in The Journal of Nutrition took a look at macronutrient influence in a calorie-restricted diet. A carbohydrate-rich diet that's high in fiber and low in fat was observed to promote weight loss in people at risk of diabetes. This study suggests that getting more fiber from complex carbs including fiber-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables may help promote weight loss and lead to sustainable results.
“The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend two servings of whole grains daily; there’s need to cut them out,” says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim. A better idea is to include nutrient-dense whole grains and other plant-based carbs in your diet.
They're nourishing, satisfying and weight-loss friendly. “Sweet potato, quinoa and oatmeal contain super-healthy carbs that are high in fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals,” Dr. Young says. Aim for two servings of whole grains daily, exercise portion control and stop relying on low-carb convenience foods to get you through the day.
3. You Aren't Balancing Your Macros
Heed caution to any diet that wants you to eliminate carbs, protein or fat. "Every day, you need a certain amount of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber found in each of these macronutrients," says Mussatto. "The best approach is to balance these macros by aiming for about 50 percent of your diet coming from carbs, 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat."
"All food groups have nutritious and nourishing foods supportive of healthy weight loss, such as whole grains, fruits and veggies with energy-boosting carbs, lean meats and seafood for muscle-building protein, and avocados and nuts containing essential fats," says Mussatto.
The Mediterranean diet has long been recognized for improving heart and overall health as well as aiding in weight loss. And that's mainly because it supports all food groups and places an emphasis on quality carbohydrates as well as fish, lean animal proteins and healthy fats.
In fact, on the Med diet, carbs make up the biggest chunk of your meals, with about 43 percent of total daily calories come from carbs, according to a 2015 review published in Nutrients.
Include all food groups in your daily diet, focusing on a variety of foods found in their natural state. Aim to get around 40 to 50 percent of your daily calories from whole-food, unprocessed carbs.
To help achieve overall balance, Kristen Carli, RD recommends swapping out empty-calorie snacks (candy, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, highly refined crackers, etc.) for healthy combos, such as hummus with baby carrots, an apple with peanut butter or a slice of whole-wheat toast with avocado and hemp seeds.
4. You Underestimate the Power of Carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates provide the dietary fiber necessary to improve digestive health, curb cravings and prevent chronic disease. What's more, not getting enough fiber can lead to health issues such as diverticulosis and unhealthy cholesterol levels, putting one at risk for poor digestive health and heart disease, per Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"Carbs serve as powerhouses — our body's best source of fuel."
A 2019 review on plant-based diets cites evidence from numerous studies and several clinical trials, concluding that getting between 25 to 29 grams of fiber could reduce the risks for metabolic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, per research published in Translational Psychiatry. Getting plenty of fiber from legumes, grains, vegetables and fruits aid in metabolic processes that improve gut health, blood sugar control and lipid levels.
Read more: 19 High-Fiber Foods — Some May Surprise You!
And if that's not enough to convince you, Meckleberg states she's seen low energy levels, workout fatigue, imbalanced hormones in women and stalled physical results in her patients who've chosen to restrict their carbs.
“Carbs serve as powerhouses — our body's best source of fuel,” says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies and YouTube vlogger at Diabetes Every Day. Get at least 25 grams of fiber a day from plant-based foods such as whole grains, fruits and beans. "The fiber helps blunt glucose spikes,” says Smithson.
Embrace the power of good carbs and follow a plant-based diet that is rich in a variety of complex carbohydrates to stay energized and healthy.
- JAMA: "Trends in Dietary Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Intake and Diet Quality Among US Adults"
- Lancet: "Prevention and Management of Type 2 Diabetes: Dietary Components and Nutritional Strategies"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020”
- The Journal of Nutrition: "A High-Carbohydrate, High-Fiber, Low-Fat Diet Results in Weight Loss among Adults at High Risk of Type 2 Diabetes"
- Nutrients: "Definition of the Mediterranean Diet: A Literature Review"
- Translational Psychiatry: "The Effects of Plant-based Diets on the Body and the Brain: A Systematic Review"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Fiber"
- Mayo Clinic: "Low-Carb Diet: Can it Help You Lose Weight?"