Selection of comptex carbohydrates sources on white background, copy space

Top 7 Carb Myths Debunked

Does the word “carbs” send shivers down your spine? It shouldn’t! There are so many carb myths out there, it’s no wonder people are going keto.  Are carbs bad for you? Do carbs make you fat? We’ve heard them all before and now it’s time to clear up some of the confusion.

Selection of comptex carbohydrates sources on white background, copy space

What Are Carbs? 

Before we get into debunking those carb myths, let’s get down to the basics.  

Technically speaking, carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients the body needs in large quantities to obtain calories and therefore energy (the others are protein and fat). Carbs can be further categorized into three groups: sugar, fiber, and starch. Most carb-containing foods will have some combination of all three types of carbs (i.e. sugar, fiber, starch).

Carbohydrates are your body’s primary energy source. When carbohydrates are no longer coming in and your carb stores are depleted, the body turns to burning fat as fuel (hello, ketosis).

Let’s get one thing straight – carbs do a body GOOD. They fuel your central nervous system and provide energy to your working muscles. They also prevent protein from being used as an energy source which prevents muscle loss.

Surprisingly, carbs can help prevent weight regain, and yes, even promote weight loss.

Also, carbohydrates support heart health and brain function. In fact, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates, set at 130 grams/per day, is based on the minimum amount of carbohydrates your brain and liver need for prime functioning, plus a little extra for good measure.

Unhealthy products high in sugar. Simple carbohydrates food.

Simple and Complex Carbs – What’s the difference?

This is where things get a little science-y. During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar) molecules so that the cells can use them for energy. The exception here is fiber – your body can’t break this stuff down. Unlike starches and sugars, fiber slowly passes through the body mostly undigested, helping to stabilize blood sugar and regulate digestion.

The building blocks of all carbohydrates (i.e. sugar, starch, and fiber) are different types of sugar molecules and they can be classified according to how many sugar molecules are “strung together”. This difference in their chemical structure determines how quickly the sugar is absorbed and digested. 

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbs are well, simple. They consist of just one to two sugar molecules and are absorbed quickly. Eating foods made primarily from simple carbs can lead to a blood sugar roller coaster, leaving you hungry, cranky, and tired soon after.  

Sugars and sweeteners are often referred to as simple carbohydrates. Examples of simple carbohydrates are: 

  • Regular and brown sugars
  • Corn syrup
  • Fructose (the sugar found in fruit) 

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest because, simply put, they’re bigger and therefore take longer to break down. They have 3 or more sugar molecules all strung together in a long, complex chain. Eating foods rich in complex carbs can give you more sustained energy levels and help fill you up. 

Starches and fibers are referred to as complex carbohydrates. They’re usually found in whole foods, such as: 

  • Starchy vegetables (like potatoes)
  • Legumes
  • Fruit
  • Whole Grains 

Keep in mind, many carb foods have a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates; for example, fruit contains natural fruit sugar (fructose, a simple carb) as well as dietary fiber (a complex carb).

The main thing to remember here is that not all carb foods are created equal. You want to focus on getting most of your carbohydrates from less refined and less processed, whole-food sources that are high in fiber. Remember, fiber’s the carb that isn’t digested and passes through you slowly. Therefore, it can slow the absorption of the simpler sugars in your food and keep those blood sugar levels in check.

Myths or Facts concept

Debunking 7 Carb Myths

Now that you’ve gotten the crash course in carbohydrate 101, it’s time to debunk some popular carb myths. You’ve probably heard all of them before. They float around Instagram, Facebook, and your friend group. 

I’m here to tell you what’s true and what’s not. And it’s all backed by science. 

Myth #1 Carbs are Pasta and Bread

Where that myth came from: 

When you hear “carbs”, you probably envision the unlimited breadsticks and endless bowls of spaghetti at Olive Garden. True, these are high-carb foods, but they aren’t the only ones!

Fact:

Grain products like bread and pasta are high in carbs, but so are fruit, starchy vegetables like potatoes, and legumes (like your beans, chickpeas, and lentils). There are carbs in just about everything you eat. Although they’re mostly found in fruit, grain, vegetable, and milk products, even some animal and seafood products contain small amounts (usually due to their diet).

Think you’re avoiding carbs when you chow down on a spinach salad? Think again. A cup of spinach has a couple grams of carbs, and so do those other veggies on top of your salad.

Myth #2 Carbs, in General, are BAD

Where that myth came from: 

There are a lot of carb-rich foods that frankly aren’t that healthy for you (remember, pure sugar is a carb). I’m talking about donuts, candy, cookies, potato chips, and yes, that endless bread basket at Olive Garden. 

It’s easy to see how thinking of those carb sources as “bad” can lead to generalizing that all carbs are bad. But they aren’t!

And let’s not forget about gluten. With the increasing popularity of the gluten-free trend, it’s no wonder carb-rich foods (wheat being a main source of gluten) leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Fact:

Carbs do a body GOOD. Your body needs them for energy. A carbohydrate-deficient diet can cause headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, nutrient deficiencies, constipation, the list goes on and on.

Don’t worry, there are many good-for-you carby foods to choose from. When possible, look for those rich in fiber, like fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole/ancient grains. Remember, fiber helps fill you up, without filling you out.

As for the gluten issue, there’s no evidence to support that gluten causes harm or inflammation in those without Celiac’s Disease (a disorder in which eating gluten triggers an immune response in the body). If you still think you don’t tolerate gluten well and want to avoid it, go for it! But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid carbs or even limit your carb intake. There are plenty of high-carb options that don’t contain gluten: quinoa, rice, gluten-free oats, fruit, potatoes, legumes, etc.

Myth #3 White Carbs are Bad

Where that myth came from:

White carbs get a bad rap because refined foods with less nutritional value typically fall into this category. Think: white bread, white pasta, and regular potatoes.

Fact:

The color of the food doesn’t make it bad. Sadly, white carbs get a bad rap, when they can actually be good for you. Sure, white grain products don’t offer as much good-for-you nutrients, like fiber, as their whole-grain counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad! Side note: no food is inherently good or bad, and all foods can be part of a well-balanced diet.

And did you know that white rice is actually good for athletes? Eating rice after working out will help replenish muscle glycogen stores. 

If you choose to incorporate these carb sources into your diet, focus on portion sizes and pairing them with something high in fiber and protein to help control the blood sugar response. For example, a piece of bread with no-sugar-added nut butter or hummus.

Many other white carb foods are actually very good for you! Potatoes have a particularly bad reputation but are a great source of fiber, vitamin C, and potassium. Greek yogurt is another healthy one that gets its carbs from the sugars found naturally in milk (i.e. lactose). It’s rich in protein and beneficial bacteria known as probiotics. Ever heard of cauliflower? Yea, it’s white, and yea, it has carbs.

Myth #4 Carbs Make You Fat

Where that myth came from: 

It’s no surprise that people think carbs make you fat. If you used to believe myths 1 , 2 and 3 and were  under the impression that carbs were just grains, chips and bon bons, well then yes, it makes sense.

And if you’ve ever heard the insulin-carbohydrate theory, well then, it makes double sense. Carb intake = insulin secretion = fat storage. So, carbs equal fat, right?

Not quite.

Fact:

Any food can make you fat. True, if you eat lots of grains, chips, and bon bons, you’ll probably gain weight and fat. But this has less to do with carbohydrates, and more to do with source and quantity of those carbs.

We love these types of carb-rich foods and tend to overeat them. They also tend to be high in fat and calories too, and any excess intake of calories, no matter the food source, will lead to weight gain. Plus, these carb sources can be low in fiber and protein, meaning they don’t fill you up and cause the “hanger” soon after. Hunger = more eating = more calories = weight gain.

When it comes to the insulin theory, it makes intuitive sense. When you eat carbs, they are broken down into sugar and absorbed into your bloodstream. This signals the release of insulin. Insulin is like the UPS delivery guy – it brings sugar to the cells like packages and the cells take it to use it for energy. But when the cells have too much sugar, insulin must re-route delivery and instead bring the sugar to the liver to be stored as glycogen for later use.

What does this have to do with fat? Well, when the cells have enough sugar and the liver’s limited glycogen storage is full too, there’s only one thing left to do with the excess sugar: fat storage. Here’s the thing, fat storage isn’t always a bad thing – we need some fat!  Regardless, research has demonstrated time and time again that increased insulin levels due to high-carb diets don’t seem to increase fat gain. It’s the excess calories that do, not the carbs. It always comes back to boring old calories…

Myth #4 Avoid Carbs at Night

Where that myth came from: 

There’s a theory that the later you eat carbs, the less time you’ll have to burn them. It’s thought that your metabolism basically shuts off when you sleep, meaning you can’t use those carbs and so they must be converted into fat.

To make matters worse, there’s also the hormone issue. Remember your fat storage hormone, insulin? It’s thought that insulin sensitivity is at its lowest at night, meaning those broken down carbs from your evening meal are less likely to be used as energy and more likely to be stored as fat.  

Fact:

I’m not sure where the “no carbs past 3 pm” rule came from, but there’s no evidence whatsoever to show that your body automatically can’t process carbs past this time. Your metabolism is working 24/7. In fact, it’s working while you sleep!

Sure, if you eat large dinners this could lead to weight gain. But this isn’t a carb or carb timing issue, this is a calorie issue. Eating too much of any food at any time of day, can result in eating too many calories, and extra calories can get stored as fat.

As for the hormone issue, insulin sensitivity may be lower at night compared to in the morning, but that doesn’t mean it’s impaired. In fact, another hormone also takes a dip throughout the day. Cortisol, your stress hormone, enhances the fat-storing effects of insulin. So, if there’s less cortisol circulating at night, it could mean less fat storage.  

Myth #5 Low-Carb is Best

Where that myth came from: 

Although people have been following low-carb diets for quite some time now, it wasn’t until Dr. Robert Atkins created the Atkins Diet that this low-carb lifestyle became mainstream.

Fast forward to the 21st century and everyone and their mother is avoiding carbs and following the new extremely low-carbohydrate diet trend known as the “keto diet”. With promises of health miracles and drastic weight loss, it’s no wonder everyone’s jumping on the keto bandwagon.

Fact:

This is a tricky one. Yes, low-carb diets can work, and some research supports this. There is evidence that following a low-carb diet may improve some heart health parameters, like blood pressure and cholesterol. But again, following any form of restricted diet in general could produce similar outcomes.

What about weight loss? Can a low-carb diet help you lose weight? Research shows that while low-carb diets tend to yield greater weight loss at first than higher-carb diets, this weight loss usually evens out long-term. Why? Low-carb dieters tend to see rapid weight loss right away due to loss of water weight. Also, low-carb diets can be hard to sustain long-term, and weight tends to creep back on over time as you become less and less strict with the diet.

If you’ve followed a low-carb diet before and it worked, it makes sense. When you must eliminate or limit so many foods, your overall calorie intake is guaranteed to go down. Think of all the high-carb favorites you had to remove from your diet: pizza, pasta, cookies, packaged snack foods, etc. These foods also come with a high-calorie price tag.

Instead of worrying about carb quantity, it’s more sustainable to focus on carb-quality and portion sizes.

Myth #7 Fruit is Bad Because It’s High in Carbs

Where that myth came from: 

Fruit is high in sugar and fiber, and therefore high in carbs. The main source of carbohydrate in fruit is fructose, which is a simple carb. Wait…simple carbs are in fruit? But I thought simple carbs were bad!

Yup, that’s where the confusion came from. 

Fact:

Fruit is high in sugar, but there’s no need to sound the alarm! Remember, fruit is a source of both simple carbs (fructose) and complex carbs (fiber). Thanks to the high fiber content of fruit, your blood sugar won’t skyrocket and plummet like it would if you took that sugar straight up.

Plus, fruit is an excellent source of other disease-fighting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Just be sure to take fruit in its whole form, as opposed to juice form, when possible. Juicing fruit removes the fiber and leaves you with straight sugar, which can definitely send your blood sugar on a roller coaster.

Selection of comptex carbohydrates sources on white background, copy space

The Bottom Line: Don’t Be Fooled By Scary Carb Myths

If you’ve been following a low-carb lifestyle and it works for you, then great! Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, there’s no one-carb-fits-all approach either.

But if fear of carbs has left you hungry, unfocused, and tired, and you’re ready to bring them back into your life, then have no fear. Carbs in general aren’t bad for you. In fact, many of them are extremely nutritious and very good for you!

You have so many to choose from, beyond grain products like pasta and bread. Instead of agonizing over carb quantity, focus on including quality carbs in your diet. High-carb foods like whole/ancient grains, beans, starchy vegetables, and fruit are good sources of fiber, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable and hanger at bay.

And don’t forget to enjoy a cookie (or two) every once in a while… it does the mind good. 😊

 

 

Comments

  1. Sharon Ogugu

    Charlotte, thank you so much for sharing this with the world. Very well written and an interesting read. I’ve shared this on social media to help people pause and check the facts backed by science before/while going crazy about the ketogenic diet.
    P.S. Have you written on intermittent fasting. It’s the new craze in my circles here (Nairobi, Kenya) and I’m looking to share from other nutritionists/dietitians/health coaches.

    1. Charlotte Martin

      Hi Sharon! Thank you so much for your kind comment. It makes me so happy to hear that this information is being read all over the world! I’m working on a piece on Intermittent Fasting that will be on the blog in less than two weeks! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it 🙂 It will also come with a mini downloadable guide. Thanks! Charlotte

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