Let Them Eat Carbs
Carbs: The much-vilified macronutrient that went from being the foundation of the food pyramid to the supposed cause of all our nutrition woes in a few short decades.
But wait – you may be asking, “what’s a macronutrient?” so before I get ahead of myself let me give you a little background in nutrition science. There are three macronutrients in our diets: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. These macronutrients provide us with energy (or calories) and we need all three in a healthy balance for optimal body function.
Now back to carbohydrates:
Should we be eating carbs?
And if so, why have carbs gotten such a bad rap?
Despite what you may have heard, you absolutely should be eating carbs!
Carbs are the main source of energy for our bodies. They are quickly converted to sugar which is easy fuel for our cells and brain. And many carbohydrate foods are high in fiber and B vitamins which are essential for good health. Foods like oatmeal, quinoa, beans, sprouted grain breads, and colorful potatoes (sweet, red, or purple potatoes) are very nutritious and are an excellent addition to any diet.
Ok Stephanie, if carbs are so great why have low carb diets become so popular?
First are the bogus reasons: Celebrity doctors looove to cite the science-adjacent *benefits of low carb diets like reduced inflammation or increased mental clarity. But nope. That’s not real.
I suspect the real reason people are so infatuated with low carb diets is that they do often result in short term weight loss.
When we begin cutting carbs, we eliminate some higher calorie, less nutrient dense food (think pizza and ice cream) by default. So sure, we may lose weight, but that weight loss has a lot more to do with reduced calorie intake than reduced carb intake.
Additionally, there is some evidence that a low carb diet takes more energy to process which might result in a slight increase in overall calorie burn. Our bodies prefer using carbs for energy, but they can burn protein or fat too, when necessary. Kinda like how writing a check is just as effective as paying with a credit card, it’s just a bigger ordeal. So sure, cutting carbs may “earn” you an extra hundred calories per day resulting in a small initial weight loss. But remember, your metabolism will adjust based on energy intake and physical activity. So, after a few weeks or months, your body is no longer in a caloric deficit - it’s now adjusted to your current intake and your weight has stabilized.
But let me stress: there is zero evidence that low carb diets result in sustainable, long term weight loss.
Remember that it’s human nature to want what we can’t have. I recently had a friend express frustration at not being able to eat beans on her low carb diet, “I don’t even really like beans!” she told me, “but now that they’re off limits they’re all I can think about.” The more we restrict, the more we crave. When we eventually give in to our carb cravings (as most of us will), we end up more carb obsessed than ever and ultimately begin gaining back the weight we lost.
Now let’s take a look at actual health – the thing we all say we care about. When it comes to longevity and reduced disease risk, we know that balanced diets containing moderate amounts of carbs result in the best long-term health outcomes. So sure, Keto might help you lose weight. But it’s probably not gonna help you live longer.
Let me just leave you with one final thought:
Remember in the 90’s when we were all really afraid of fat? Remember those olestra potato chips that tasted just like regular chips, but they made you poop a ton. (They were made with a non-digestible fat and anal-leakage was a real side effect of those chips.) Now we looove fat. We put butter in our coffee for some reason. And we eat avocados like our lives depend on it. But apparently, we haven't learned anything because today we have all kinds of artificial sweeteners that cause GI upset à la olestra.
Can we move on from the low carb trend now? Seriously, let’s just eat some bread and get on with our lives.
*If you’re eating a diet that’s very high in refined carbohydrates you may not feel great. In that case, moderating your carb intake may have some health benefits. I can write more about this if you’d like. Comment below.