First, let’s define carbohydrates. For all the negative talk you hear about them, I find there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about what carbohydrates actually are. Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients along with fat and protein. Macronutrients are larger nutrients compared to micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals), and these macronutrients break down to give our body energy, which is measured in units called calories.
When I ask people where carbohydrates are found, usually the first thing they list are foods they perceive as bad, like bread, pasta and sugar. In reality, carbs are found in most foods, at all ends of the spectrum of nutrient density! Carbs are found in grains, like wheat, rice (white and brown), oats, and quinoa, and foods made from grains, like breads, pasta, crackers and baked goods (again, both whole grain and white). Carbs are also found in starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas, corn and winter squash), beans, and fruit, as well as milk and yogurt. And of course, all added sugars, including table sugar, honey, and maple syrup, will provide carbohydrate as well. Basically, carbs are found in foods often labeled “healthy” as well as those that are often labeled “unhealthy”…but of course we don’t label foods good or bad here!
Carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of fuel, both because carbs are found basically everywhere, and also because the brain, the most metabolically active organ, can only use glucose from carbohydrate for energy. So if you deprive your body of carbohydrate, not only will you likely feel sluggish, tired or moody, but your body will then start to break down fat and muscle to make it’s own glucose. One of the selling points of low carb diets is that your body will break down more fat, which is true, but they conveniently forget to mention that it breaks down more muscle too. Because muscle burns more energy, this loss of lean body mass slows metabolism.
Now that you’ve got a little more understanding about carbohydrates, on to the mythbusting…
Myths about Carbohydrates
Myth: Carbs will make you gain weight.
First, let’s start by saying weight science is really complex. Our weight is determined by so many factors behind food and fitness - socioeconomic status, age, stress, sleep, medications, microbiota, prior dieting history, prenatal factors, race/ethnicity, and past medical history, just to name a few. And let’s not forget the most important factor of all - genetics! Sure, food plays a role, but without engaging in risky behaviors with it (i.e. restriction or ongoing binge eating - which is usually driven by restriction), food won’t take you outside of your natural set point range.
Also, weight is not health.
That said, the idea that carbs cause weight gain is a huge driver of fear around carbohydrates. In reality, the units of energy (calories) our body gets from carbohydrate/glucose are no different than the energy our body gets from fat/fatty acids or protein/animo acids.
I think this myth comes from a couple places. For one, think about the kinds of food you crave when you’re in situations where you’re more likely to eat beyond fullness. Ravenously hungry? You’ll probably want something sugary to bring that blood sugar up fast. Checked out in front of the TV? A bag of chips, of course! Needing comfort from an uncomfortable emotion? I know I want a bowl of mac and cheese, stat. The foods we tend to eat in these situation are more carbohydrate-rich foods, but that doesn’t mean the foods are at fault. The solution is learning tools to prevent extreme hunger, eat a little more mindfully, and cope with emotions with or without food, not eliminating carbohydrates - all helpful skills beyond any potential impact on weight.
The other thing I think fuels this myth is many people’s experience losing a pretty significant amount of weight rapidly after starting a low carb diet. However, much of this is water weight. Remember, it’s a carbo-HYDRATE. The carbohydrate molecule itself has four H2Os attached to it. Plus, any diet will result in weight loss in the short term.
Long term, depriving your body of carbs actually leads to weight gain. It breaks down lean body mass, and often leads to binging when you eventually do eat carbs again. Which you probably will, because do you really want to live your life without your favorite foods? And that’s not to mention the psychological effects of carbohydrate deprivation, like feeling isolated avoiding social events around food, constantly obsessing about carbs, and feeling tired all the time.
Myth: If it’s white, don’t bite.
OK, so maybe you’re cool with carbohydrates, but worry about the type of carbohydrates. A common refrain is “if it’s white, don’t bite.” Meaning if it’s a refined grain, like white bread, white rice, white sugar, or anything made with white flour, it’s “bad,” but whole grains and other carbohydrate sources are good.
There is a kernel of truth to this in that whole grains, beans, and starchy vegetables are more nutrient dense and contain more fiber, so definitely emphasize these foods in your diet if that aligns with your health goals. But that doesn’t mean that refined carbohydrates are “bad.” As long as you’re getting some whole grains or other high fiber carbohydrates in, there’s no harm in eating refined grains or added sugar too. In some cases, like fueling for activity, eating a more easily digestible carbohydrate is actually a healthier choice. I know I don’t feel good running with a belly full of fiber, which is why I often get sushi the night before a long run.
Let’s not overlook the importance of pleasure and flexibility in healthy eating too! If eating some refined grains or added sugar means you get to eat the foods you like, or have more options available to you, then that makes it healthy!
Myth: Sugar is addictive.
I’ve been lucky enough to train under Marci Evans, a dietitian who has done a lot of work debunking the science of sugar addiction. One thing I’ve learned from her is that we never want to discount the feeling of being addicted to sugar, which for many people is entirely real. If that’s you, please know you’re not alone with your struggles with food and that it is possible for you to have a peaceful relationship with sugar - but restricting sugar isn’t the answer.
The science of “sugar addiction” is based on three things:
The Yale Food Addiction Scale
Animal studies showing “addiction-like” behaviors around sugar
Studies showing a dopamine response to sugar
Let’s talk about each of these. First, there’s the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which is supposed to be a measure of food addiction. However, this scale does not account for dieting and restrictive behaviors, which we know will absolutely affect ones behaviors around food (for more on this, read this article on the dieting pendulum). If food addiction was real, you would expect abstinence to be the solution, but research and clinical experience with binge eating disorder shows the opposite - that restriction makes binge eating worse, and normalizing and giving access to these foods reduces frequency of binges.
A lot of people are familiar with studies claiming sugar is as addictive as cocaine. However, the rats that were studied only consumed sugar in an addiction-like way when they were given intermittent access to it, and not when they were given free access to sugar. There are also studies that show sugar has a similar dopamine response as cocaine, which is the reward pathway. I wish they would also show the dopamine response we get from hugs, shopping, sex, talking to a friend on the phone, and food in general. I even remember reading a study that showed a dopamine response when people were shown pictures of the person they dated in high school. I’m 1,000% positive I’m not addicted to anyone I crushed on at Lake Braddock Secondary School!
Myth: Carbs spike blood sugar.
When we eat carbohydrates, they break down into glucose, which is then absorbed into the blood steam through the small intestine, and eventually used by cells for energy, or put into storage in the liver as glycogen. So in that sense, yes, carbohydrates effect blood sugar. If your systems for regulating blood glucose are working as they should (i.e. no diagnosis of diabetes, pre-diabetes, or PCOS), while certain foods might have a faster or slower effect on blood glucose, it will stay within a healthy range, even if you eat a large amount of sweets. Some foods or meals might affect your blood sugar more than others, but that’s OK - your body knows how to handle it!
Even if you do have a diagnosis that affects carbohydrate metabolism, that doesn’t mean eliminating carbs is the answer. In my experience as both a dietitian and certified diabetes educator, I’ve found more often eliminating carbs leads to fluctuations in blood sugar, or just short term improvements. While some people, especially those with more labile diabetes, might benefit from a lower carbohydrate dietary pattern, that doesn’t mean no carbohydrate diet. Both research and clinical experience show that more so than total amount of carbohydrate, consistency of carbohydrate matters most (i.e. eating even-ish amounts throughout the day).
The cool thing about intuitive eating is that it encourages eating in a pattern that is helpful for blood sugar control. It emphasizes consistency in eating - going long periods of time without eating then eating a lot is not so great for blood sugar. Intuitive eating encourages honoring hunger cues, which are often triggered by dipping blood sugar. It also teaches balance and including all foods. By including balance (i.e. sources of fat, protein and carbohydrate) with meals, those other macros help slow the release of glucose into your bloodstream, which is helpful for keeping the mechanisms that control blood sugar healthy and functioning. By teaching you how to self moderate with sweets and other carbohydrate-containing foods, you’re less likely to eat them in a way that would negatively effect blood glucose.
Any carb myths I didn’t get to? Feel free to leave a comment below and I’m happy to answer! Next I’m talking fad diets!
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