Between Atkins, Paleo and the Keto Diet, the last 15 years have been tough on carbohydrates. The low-carb craze is still going strong and, no question, limiting your portions of carb-heavy foods can be key for losing or maintaining your weight. But — unless, of course, you have a health condition that requires it — cutting out carbs completely isn't typically the answer. Not only do carbs provide energy to help you keep up with your busy and active lifestyle, but carb-rich foods also have loads of nutritional value that you'll miss out on if you ban them completely. Read on to learn why you should reconsider nixing carbs in your diet and which sources of carbs to reach for to stay healthy.
1. Carbs Are Your Primary Source of Energy.
The energy to knock out a morning workout, crush it at work and come home to do some healthy meal prepping in the evening? You can thank carbs for that. "Carbohydrates are your body's main and preferred source of fuel," says Autumn Ehsaei, a registered dietitian and nutritionist based in North Carolina. "Your brain is the biggest consumer of glucose, and your body wants the energy that carbs provide to be able to run most efficiently and effectively." Technically, you can get by eating very few carbs each day, but that means your body has to look for less-efficient nutrients for fuel, which can affect how you feel.
Read more: 10 Myths About Grains – Totally Busted
2. Carbs Help You Power Through Tough Workouts
Given that carbs help fuel your muscles, it's no surprise that healthy carbs are also important for getting the most from your workouts. "Carbs are very important for recovery because they help restore glycogen stores in muscles that may have been depleted during the workout," says Eliza Savage, a registered dietitian based in New York. Eating carbs before your workout also provides a quick burst of energy, and studies show that cutting out carbs can actually lower your endurance.
Post-workout, reach for a snack that has both carbs and protein, recommends Savage. Some sliced chicken and salsa on a whole-wheat tortilla or an apple with almond butter should do the trick. Before your workout, go for a banana for the fast-acting carbs you need for an energy boost.
3. Carbs Are a Good Source of Dietary Fiber.
Healthy sources of carbs — from whole grains to fruits and veggies — have one major nutrient in common: fiber. "Fiber is essential to helping regulate hunger and fullness cues, providing lasting energy and managing steady blood glucose levels," says Autumn Ehsaei, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. "It is also the main food source for the good bacteria in your gut, so it helps to create a happy microbiome." Cutting carbs out of your diet means restricting several fiber-rich foods, which makes getting your recommended daily fiber intake much more challenging, she adds. Too little fiber can cause constipation, and because fiber-rich diets are linked to lower rates of heart disease, not getting enough might threaten your cardiovascular health.
Read more: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs
4. Carbs Provide Essential B-Complex Vitamins.
Foods that contain carbs provide plenty of essential nutrients, but plenty of staple "carb" foods — like pasta, bread and other grains — are some of your best sources of B vitamins. B-complex vitamins aid your metabolism, explains Eliza Savage, a registered dietitian, and they help you derive energy from the food you eat. Certain B vitamins also have other benefits. For example, folate (a B vitamin found in bread and rice) helps with red blood cell development, while thiamin (abundant in lentils and rice) is key for healthy cell growth.
5. You'll Miss Out on Fruit and Its Benefits.
Cutting carbs out of your diet entirely means cutting out fruit — nature's candy — too. And that would be a big mistake. Not only is the sugar in fruit the healthy, natural variety, but fruit comes loaded with dietary fiber and potassium for heart health. Eating fruit also makes it easy to get your daily recommended intake of vitamin C, an antioxidant that boosts metabolism and also nourishes your skin and hair. What's more, certain fruits — like apples and grapes — reduce your risk of diabetes, according to the British Medical Journal. Even a little bit of fruit each day offers health benefits, and the USDA recommends one-and-a-half to two cups per day as part of a balanced diet.
Read more: 10 Low-Carb Breakfasts That Will Fill You Up
6. Starchy Veggies Are Nutritional Powerhouses.
While even very low-carb diets permit you to eat some vegetables, cutting out carbs means you'll miss out on an important subgroup of vegetables — starchy vegetables — that just happen to be great for you. Case in point: sweet potatoes. "[Sweet potatoes are] high in vitamin A, vitamins B-5, B-6, thiamin, niacin and riboflavin," says dietitian Michelle Jaelin. "[And] due to their orange color, they are high in carotenoids, which are antioxidants that have cancer-fighting properties." Cutting out carbs means you'd also have to cut out protein-rich starchy veggies like beans, peas and legumes. "These provide fiber, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium," she says. So making room for a serving or two of these veggies is key for getting the nutrients you need.
7. Grains Are Loaded With Phytonutrients.
You may not think of grains as antioxidant superstars, especially compared to fruits and vegetables, but they certainly can be. Black rice, for example, beats out blueberries as a top source of anthocyanins, a family of phytonutrients shown to fight Alzheimer's disease. Red quinoa is packed with powerful antioxidants that stay active even after cooking or baking, which means you'll get serious benefits no matter how you serve it. Get the most antioxidant benefits by looking for such colored grains as black quinoa, burgundy rice and red wheat berries.
8. Carbs Make You Feel Good.
If you've ever experienced the dreaded "low-carb flu" — and the fatigue and irritability that usually go along with it — you already know cutting carbs can affect your mood. There's a reason for that. "There is evidence that carbohydrate consumption stimulates serotonin production, a neurotransmitter responsible for maintaining mood balance," says Jaelin. "Lack of of serotonin has been linked to changes in mood, such as irritability and sadness, and mood disorders like depression." Carbs also boost your brain levels of tryptophan, a calming amino acid with a similar mood-boosting effect. And while there's mixed evidence on whether following a low-carb diet may actually contribute to depression, some researchers have reported a link between the two.
9. Carbs Can Help You Sleep.
Sure, eating healthy and working out are essential for staying fit — but getting good quality shut-eye is just as important. And including carbs in your diet might actually make it easier to fall asleep. That calming amino acid, tryptophan? It's also responsible for making you drowsy so you can more easily fall asleep. Researchers have found that carbohydrates improve sleep quality, and eating a carb-rich meal four hours before bedtime helped study subjects fall asleep faster. Include a serving or two of healthy carb-rich foods in your dinner along with these other sleep-friendly foods.
10. Carbs Help Maintain Dietary Balance
Removing carbs from your diet completely means cutting out food groups — including ones that are incredibly healthy for you. "Keep in mind that all vegetables, fruits, whole grains, bread and pasta are considered carbohydrates," says Jaelin. "I never recommend significantly cutting out a food group without first consulting your registered dietitian or doctor." Not only does it mean missing out on the nutritional value in those foods, it may mean skipping out on some of your favorite comfort foods: Even a healthy whole-grain vegetable pizza, for instance, contains carbs. The better approach? "Choose healthy carbohydrates more often than simple carbs, and find a balanced diet you can stick to — and enjoy — to eat healthy for life."
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever tried a no-carb diet — or if you were considering it, have you been convinced to give carbs a chance? How do you fit healthy carbs into your diet? Share your thoughts in the comments!