When it comes to weight loss, carbohydrates seem to have become the most maligned macronutrient. "People typically blame health and weight issues on [carbs like] bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and even fruit," Lisa Moskovitz, RDN, founder and CEO of The NY Nutrition Group, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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But carbs don't deserve such a bad rap. After all, they're our premier source of energy.
"Carbohydrates to the body are like gasoline to a car or a battery pack to our cell phones — they keep us functioning at our peak and offer a steady stream of fuel throughout the day," Moskovitz says.
The truth is, you need healthy carbs to be successful on your path to weight loss. So before you banish every carb from your diet plan, know the facts.
Here, Moskovitz busts six common myths about carbs that could be curbing your progress on the scale.
Myth 1: All Carbs Are the Same
Not all carbs are created equal.
"There is certainly a difference between eating oatmeal and drinking soda — the latter is virtually all sugar and no nutrients, while oats are plenty nutritious and get broken down more slowly," Moskovitz says.
When it comes to a healthy diet plan, the more nutrients a carb contains, the more valuable it is to your body.
"Focus on eating more complex, high-fiber and nutrient-dense carbs like fruit, veggies, beans and whole grains," Moskovitz says.
Fiber-rich foods not only keep you feeling fuller for longer but also help to stabilize your blood sugar — both important things when weight loss is your aim.
Myth 2: Carbs Are Fattening
While many of us blame bread, pasta and cookies for weight gain, carbs aren't inherently fattening.
"Only carbohydrates eaten in excess of what the body burns as fuel (or reserves as glycogen for later use) will get converted into adipose tissue (fat)," Moskovitz says.
This goes for all macros. "Whether you're eating carb-rich bread, protein-packed beef or high-fat butter, if your body doesn't need those calories for energy, it will stockpile them for later," Moskovitz says.
Simply put: Carbohydrates are no more fattening than any other macronutrient. The real culprit is eating in excess.
Still, "the types of carbohydrates you consume can either help keep you feeling full and energized or leave you feeling tired and wanting to seek out more carbs," she adds.
The healthiest approach to weight management is balancing your diet with high-fiber carbs (think: fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes), lean proteins and anti-inflammatory fats like olive oil and avocado.
Myth 3: Glycemic Index Is All That Matters
You might have heard that carbs with a low glycemic index (GI) are ideal for weight loss. That's because low-GI foods release glucose slowly and steadily, per Harvard Health Publishing. This in turn provides you with long-lasting energy, keeps your appetite (and cravings) in check and helps you avoid overeating.
The Glycemic Index
The GI ranks foods on a scale of 1 to 100 based on how quickly they increase blood glucose levels. The higher the number, the faster your blood sugar will spike. That’s why the GI can be a useful tool for people with diabetes or volatile blood sugar levels, Moskovitz says.
And while it's true that low-GI foods tend to promote weight loss, the GI doesn't tell the whole story.
"The issue is that most foods are not eaten on their lonesome or sometimes not in the 50-gram quantity" used to calculate the glycemic index, Moskovitz says.
"How often would you eat a piece of bread without a spread, meat or some kind of condiment or topping? As soon as you add something else — especially something with fiber or fat — to the mix, it immediately affects how quickly that carbohydrate food is broken down," she explains.
In other words, food pairing matters.
When debating whether a food should be part of a healthy eating plan, its GI value should be considered along with other factors, such as calories, nutrients and fiber.
"The glycemic load [which takes a food's portion size into account] is a more practical approach to predict how certain foods will impact your blood sugars," Moskovitz says.
But if you want to keep it simple, "eating higher-fiber carbs that have less added sugar along with anti-inflammatory fats is the easiest way to keep blood sugar levels on an even keel," she says.
Myth 4: All Simple Carbs Are Bad
When you hear simple carbs, you likely think of empty-calorie foods like sugar, candy and syrups. Though sweets do fall into this category, nutrient-dense foods like fruit and milk are also simple carbohydrates.
"Milk and milk products are the leading source of bone-strengthening calcium and vitamin D, while fruit is a great source of anti-inflammatory antioxidants and immune-boosting vitamin C, along with potassium and fiber," Moskovitz says.
The takeaway? "Don't judge a carbohydrate by its simplicity," she says. Consuming simple carbs can be key for a successful weight-loss plan and overall health.
Myth 5: Low-Carb Diets Are Healthier
Whether cutting carbs from your diet turns out to be a healthy choice completely depends on what you're replacing them with, Moskovitz says.
"If it's simply cutting down on refined, empty-calorie carbohydrates and adding more anti-inflammatory fats and iron-rich lean proteins or fatty fish, then, yes, it can be a healthier alternative," she says.
Not all low-carb diet plans are good for your long-term health, though. For example, "some low-carb lifestyles involve consuming excessive amounts of cholesterol-spiking saturated fats," Moskovitz says.
If you're curbing your carb intake, "make sure your total calorie count is still appropriate for your energy demands and focus on eating a balance of nutrients to avoid deficiencies or health issues down the road," she says.
Myth 6: All White Carbs Are Bad
When you began your weight-loss journey, white foods — like pasta, bread, rice and potatoes — might have been the first thing you cut from your diet. But "believing that all white carbs are bad is highly reductive," Moskovitz says.
While some white foods are refined, and thus lacking fiber and nutrients, "don't forget about other white carbohydrates like cauliflower, mushrooms, bananas and white carrots," she says. These fruits and veggies offer a variety of vitamins and minerals (and fiber) that your body needs.
And though white carbs like refined sugar and flour offer little nutritional value, that doesn't mean they are "bad," Moskovitz says. "It just means they shouldn't dominate your diet."
In moderation, all carbs can fit into a healthy diet and weight-loss plan.
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