Are Carbs That Bad?: The Effects of a High-Carb Diet

Current weight loss diet trends consider carbohydrates to be unhealthy because they may promote weight gain. This is supported by a variety of low-carb, high-fat diets that have shown health benefits, including weight loss, through reduction in carbohydrate intake. Although these diets have a variety of benefits, it is possible to consume a high-carbohydrate diet and live a healthy lifestyle.

As long as you're eating healthy carbs, high-carb diets can have a variety of positive effects on your health. (Image: Janna Danilova/iStock/GettyImages)

Carbohydrate Consumption in Your Diet

According to the Mayo Clinic, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, people who follow a 2,000-calorie diet should consume between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates each day. That makes up between 45 and 65 percent of calories.

The Food and Drug Administration lists the daily value (DV) for carbohydrates as 300 grams per day. If you're consuming the standard 2,000 calories a day, you would also consume 50 grams of protein and 65 grams of fat. This means that the FDA recommends consuming a diet made up of 60 percent carbohydrates, 10 percent protein and 30 percent fat.

Standard Diet vs. High-Carb Diet

As the name implies, a high-carb diet incorporates a larger proportion of carbohydrates into your daily diet. This amount can vary substantially but starts at around 64 to 65 percent. High-carb diets can be healthy or unhealthy based on your calorie intake and how your macronutrient consumption is distributed.

Healthy high-carb diets typically raise carbohydrate intake but lower protein and fat intake and reduce overall calorie consumption. Healthy high-carb diets, like the Okinawan diet, have been known to increase carbohydrate consumption to as much as 85 percent while reducing consumption of other macronutrients.

Unhealthy vs. Healthy High-Carb Diets

Unhealthy high-carbohydrate diets increase carbohydrate content and may also increase fat intake. They may or may not decrease protein intake. Since carbohydrates and fat are already the biggest components of a standard diet, to increase the amount of these macronutrients, you'd also likely increase overall calorie consumption.

Unhealthy high-carbohydrate diet risks vary because they tend to involve the consumption of refined or processed carbohydrates. Foods made with refined and processed carbohydrates are typically made with more fat. More often than not, the fats in these foods are unhealthy saturated and trans fats, which are associated with different health issues.

Healthy high-carb diets can have carbohydrate content that ranges from around 64 percent of your daily diet to 85 percent of your diet. These diets have been shown to promote weight loss, reverse liver disease and reduce health problems when consumed long term. They typically focus on the consumption of low-fat, high-carb foods like complex carbohydrates and fiber-rich vegetables and fruits.

Healthy High-Carb Diet Macros

Diets like these have macronutrient ratios like 64 percent carbohydrate, 18 percent protein and 18 percent fat: Consuming such diets with slightly reduced calories (1,881 calories per day) can help you lose weight, reduce body fat and reduce concentrations of the adipocyte-derived hormone adiponectin. Reduced adiponectin levels imply reduced inflammation and improved insulin responses.

Stricter high-carbohydrate diets can have ratios like 85 percent carbohydrates, 9 percent protein and 6 percent fat: Consuming diets like these while reducing daily calorie consumption has been shown to have very positive effects on long-term health. This ratio of macronutrients, which is known as the 1-to-10 protein-to-carbohydrate ratio, is associated with longer lifespans and fewer age-related diseases than average.

Notably, while these high-carbohydrate diets alter macronutrient ratios, protein intake never goes below 5 percent. That's important as protein intake below this amount is considered unhealthy, and it can cause you to lose muscle mass.

Foods in Unhealthy High-Carb Diets

Bad high-carb diets are one of the most common types of unhealthy diets consumed around the world. The diets are typically made up of refined grains, such as white bread and pasta, and processed foods, like pizza, hot dogs, deli meats and ready-made meals. Unhealthy diets also include foods with added sugars; fast foods and fried foods, like french fries and fried chicken; and junk foods, like chips and candy.

Many of these foods are safe to consume in moderation. When consumed too often, though, these unhealthy, high-carb foods can increase your risk of health problems such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They are also linked to weight gain and obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity can also cause issues, including:

  • Difficulty conceiving and other gynecological issues
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Increased risk for various types of cancers
  • Increased triglyceride levels
  • Liver disease
  • Osteoarthritis and other joint problems
  • Respiratory issues, like sleep apnea

Choosing Unhealthy vs. Healthy Diets

Many people are aware of the risks associated with an unhealthy high-carb diet. Yet about one in three Americans consumes fast-food products each day. Given that many schools and workplaces have several fast-food outlets within walking distance, this is unsurprising. Junk food and fast food products are extremely accessible.

Even when people want to choose healthy foods, these products tend to be more expensive. A 2014 study in the journal PLOS ONE showed that healthy foods have consistently been more expensive compared to unhealthy foods since 2002. In fact, healthy foods were found to be three times more expensive compared to unhealthy foods.

According to a 2017 study in the Journal of Sociological Science, this difference in cost plays a major role in unhealthy diets, particularly across socioeconomic backgrounds. Low-income families tend to purchase junk food and fast-food products frequently because of the affordability of these products. Junk foods and fast foods are not only cheaper than healthy foods, but are an accessible and affordable way for low-income families to treat or reward their children.

Accessibility of Healthy High-Carb Foods

Many of these issues mean that healthy, high-carb diets are not feasible for the average person to follow. Fortunately, as plant-based diets become more popular, vegan- and vegetarian-friendly foods are becoming more accessible and affordable.

Such foods can help provide people with more healthy high-carbohydrate products when they're on the go. However, don't automatically consider all vegan and vegetarian foods to be healthy. They can be made with processed and refined ingredients as well.

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