It’s no secret that carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in recent years. With the meteoric rise of low-carb diets and eating that focus on eliminating carbohydrates completely, it’s easy to forget the benefits of including carbohydrates in your diet. Beyond their role as a fuel source, carbohydrates provide important vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber, which helps keep your digestive system healthy. Think, healthy gut microbiome!
Despite the bad reputation carbohydrates have acquired in recent years, research shows they can be part of a healthy diet. The key is to choose the right kinds of carbs and eat them in the proper amounts. Here are five common myths about carbohydrates that could be sabotaging your health and weight-loss efforts.
Myth #1: High carbohydrate diets promote weight gain
This myth is common and undeserved. Eating a diet high in unprocessed carbohydrates does not necessarily lead to weight gain. In fact, adding healthy carbohydrates can be beneficial for weight loss. Studies suggest the quality of the calories you consume is important for weight loss and weight control.
The idea that carbohydrates are “bad” stems from the fact that most people associate carbs with sugar and processed foods–and these foods are often high in calories and low in nutrition. But carbohydrates also come from unprocessed sources like fruits, vegetables, and grains. And these foods may help reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions if you eat them in moderation.
So don’t banish all carbs from your diet. Be choosy! Focus on the quality of the carbs you eat. Consume high-fiber carbohydrates from whole food sources, and skip foods made from white flour and ultra-processed foods. Whole grains, fruits, nuts, legumes, seeds, and non-starchy vegetables are sources of healthy carbs that can be beneficial to your diet.
Myth #2: Ultra-processed carbohydrates and sugar cause diabetes
This myth is partially false, but also has an element of truth. Everyone knows sugar is bad for you, right? You might think the only reason you gain weight is because of all the delicious desserts you eat. But are your assumptions about sugar and its impact on your health accurate?
Not necessarily. There is a common misconception that ultra-processed carbohydrates and sugar are the primary cause of diabetes. However, research has not confirmed this link. While it’s true that consuming too much sugar and processed carbohydrates can lead to weight gain, which is a major risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes, this does not mean that carbohydrates and sugar are direct causes of type 2 diabetes.
Eating a diet rich in ultra-processed carbs and sugar creates an environment conducive to weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. So, there’s an association between consuming sugar and refined carbohydrates and type 2 diabetes, but not an established causal link. However, if you gain weight from eating a high-sugar diet, it raises your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Despite this, it’s better to reduce junk carbohydrates and sugar in your diet and replace them with whole, fiber-rich carbohydrates, like those in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, in moderation.
Myth #3: Carb-rich foods aren’t addictive
Several studies suggest carbohydrates are addictive for some individuals. Most evidence comes from animal studies, but there is science showing that a junk food habit is hard to break, and that your brain plays a role in the stubborn refusal to give these foods up.
Refined carbohydrates and sugar affect pleasure centers in the brain, which makes you want to keep eating these foods. Eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine that cause you to crave more. This could be one of the reasons people struggle to give up refined carbohydrates and sugar.
Further research is needed to understand the mechanisms and effects of this potential addiction. Signs of a sugar addiction include needing more and more to satisfy the craving, cravings for sweets, and difficulty controlling consumption.
Myth #4: All high-carb foods are alike
Carbohydrates are in many foods. Fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all sources of carbohydrates, and they’re linked with potential health benefits due to their nutrient density and the fact that they contain antioxidants and compounds with anti-inflammatory activity.
They also supply your body with energy in a way that doesn’t cause blood glucose spikes. The fiber in these foods helps with insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.
It’s ultra-processed carbohydrates and refined grains you should limit in your diet. Ultra-processed carbohydrates are often in packaged meals and snacks and contain unhealthy oils, sugars, and salts that can be detrimental to your health. Refined grains are often stripped of essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which makes them less nutritious and blood-sugar friendly.
Don’t lump all carbohydrates together, as some people do, and call them unhealthy. Choose your carbohydrate sources wisely, and balance them with high-quality protein and moderate quantities of healthy fats, like those in olive oil, nuts, and fish.
Myth #5: Low-carb diets are the best for weight loss.
Just as not all high-carbohydrate foods cause weight gain, low-carb diets aren’t always best for weight loss. Low-carb diets are more popular than ever, and some believe they’re the most beneficial for weight loss. Several studies show that low-carbohydrate diets may lead to greater short-term weight loss than low-fat diets.
However, the weight loss benefits of a low-carb diet are nonexistent at 12 or 24 months. The weight people lose when they start a low-carbohydrate diet is often water and glycogen (stored carbohydrates). The loss isn’t all body fat.
Still, they lead to weight loss, and people see low-carbohydrate diets as more effective. Yet low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets lead to similar amounts of weight loss in the long term. You can lose weight on a low-carbohydrate diet or one higher in carbs. The key is to choose healthy carbohydrate sources, eat mindfully, and watch portion sizes.
So, what does it all mean? A healthy diet can and should contain unprocessed, fiber-rich carbohydrates. Carbs provide fuel for the body and brain, and they’re nutritious. In the end, your best bet is to choose foods that are minimally processed and high in fiber (such as whole grains), lean protein sources (such as fish), and plenty of non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli). If you follow these guidelines consistently and stay physically active, you should have no problems staying a healthy body weight.
- Julson E. Does Sugar Cause Diabetes? Fact vs Fiction. Healthline. Published September 18, 2018. Accessed January 2, 2023. .healthline.com/nutrition/does-sugar-cause-diabetes#sugars-role
- Jaslow R. Processed carbohydrates are addictive, brain study suggests. Cbsnews.com. Published June 28, 2013. Accessed January 2, 2023. cbsnews.com/news/processed-carbohydrates-are-addictive-brain-study-suggests/
- Low-Carbohydrate Diets. The Nutrition Source. Published August 5, 2013. Accessed January 2, 2023. .hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/low-carbohydrate-diets/
- Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20-39. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019. Epub 2007 May 18. PMID: 17617461; PMCID: PMC2235907.
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