Updated: Aug 20, 2019
I can't even count how many times I've heard people say...
"I am cutting out carbohydrates- I need to lose weight."
"I can't eat carbs, it makes me feel bloated."
"Eating carbohydrates make me feel really sluggish, so I try to stay away from them."
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation over the years and are the first to be cut out in FAD weight loss diets, but we tend to forget that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbohydrates provide very important nutrients that our bodies need in order to function normally.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates give the body energy. When broken down, they are converted to glucose which is the bodies' main source of energy. Glucose can then either be used right away or stored for later use. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, starches, and dairy products. They are one of the most vital nutrients, in addition to protein and fat, and should make up most of our daily calories (45-65% of total daily calories).
Types of Carbohydrates
There are two main types of carbohydrates- simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are simple sugars or refined carbohydrates. Simple sugars are found in foods like sodas, juices, candies, cookies, cakes, and other sweets. Refined carbohydrates are foods that have their fiber, vitamins, and minerals stripped away such as, white bread, white rice, white pasta and other processed grains. Simple carbohydrates tend to cause a rapid increase in blood sugar and may contribute to weight gain. They provide calories without the fiber and nutrients to keep you full. That is probably why eating an apple is more filling compared to drinking a cup of apple juice.
Complex carbohydrates are a good source of fiber and include foods like whole grain starches (whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta, brown or wild rice, quinoa, farro, bulgur, etc), fruit, and starchy vegetables (potatoes, beans, peas, corn, and winter squash). Each of these foods is also a source of vitamins and minerals like iron, B vitamins, potassium, etc. These types of carbohydrates, including whole pieces of fruit and low fat dairy products like milk and yogurt take longer to break down into glucose and provide a variety of nutrients.
How Does the Body Use Carbohydrates?
When we break down carbohydrates into glucose, our pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which helps move glucose from our blood into our cells to use for energy. Simple sugars cause this process to go fast and you're more likely to feel hungry again soon, leading to an increase in daily caloric intake. Complex carbohydrates slows the process of glucose entering our cells to use for energy, meaning you'll be satisfied longer and will have sustained energy over a longer period of time.
People who have Type 1 Diabetes are dependent on insulin medications because their pancreas does not produce any insulin. In Type 2 Diabetes, people either do not make enough insulin or do not respond well to their own bodies' insulin, making it necessary to take either oral and/or insulin medications to facilitate the process of allowing glucose to enter cells and manage blood glucose levels. For someone with diabetes, it is important to consult with a Registered Dietitian to ensure a consistent carbohydrate eating pattern is being followed. If you are someone with diabetes seeking counseling for meal planning and to change eating behaviors, click here to see how I can help you.
Carbohydrates and Weight Loss
Cutting out carbohydrates is likely not the approach for long term weight management. Diets that significantly restrict carbohydrates (ie. Ketogenic diet, Atkin's diet) may work well early on, but usually by six months people have reached a plateau with their weight loss goals. This is because significantly restricting carbohydrates is not a normal balance of how our bodies utilize nutrition from food. Rather, it is important to understand the types of carbohydrates to include often and those to limit. A calorie deficit through portion control and exercise along with the following tips can help you achieve a healthy weight and lifestyle:
Grains, bread and cereals: always choose higher fiber options as they provide more nutritional value and keep you fuller for longer.
Starchy vegetables: potato, corn, parsnip, sweet potato, pumpkin, etc all contain carbohydrates and are nutrient-rich foods that include many other vitamins, minerals, and are a good source of fiber. Beans and legumes are also carbohydrates and an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, iron and folate. Examples of legumes include kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils.
Fruit: choose whole pieces of fruit instead of fruit juice.
Non starchy vegetables: make sure at least half of your meal contains non starchy vegetables (ie. broccoli, carrots, cucumber, cauliflower, okra, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, sweet peppers, etc)
Dairy: nutrient-rich carbohydrates contributing high calcium, vitamin D, and protein to the diet.
Occasional foods: cakes, pastries, pies, donuts, chips, sweets, and all sugary drinks contain carbohydrate, but do not provide many nutritional benefits and tend to be high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. Limit these foods to keep calorie levels under control and to help prevent nutrition related chronic disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, etc).
Read nutrition labels for carbohydrate information (total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and added sugars)
For guidance on how to customize these guidelines to your lifestyle, click here.
Bite Into Action!
Start your day with a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit
Add an extra serving of non starchy vegetables to lunch and dinner
For easy between-meal snacks, keep raw, cut-up vegetables in the refrigerator or grab some fruit with a low fat cheese stick
Substitute beans in place of meat once every week
Eat a whole fruit as your dessert
Limit added sugars
Schedule a nutrition consult for personalized counseling to achieve your health goals and maintain optimum nutrition