Kristen, wearing a backpack, holds a pole for balance on a moderately crowded train. It’s late afternoon. A man who she does not know stands nearby and looks her way.
Man: Hey there. How are you?
Kristen: Fine, thank you. How are you?
Man: I’m good! So, what do you do?
Kristen: I’m in grad school, studying nutrition.
Man: Really? That’s awesome! Okay, I have a question for you.
Man: What’s your favorite nutrient?
Yes, I was surprised by the question …but not unready to answer.
Kristen: [pauses, smiles] Carbohydrates.
Man: Carbohydrates? Oh come on. That’s such a cop out!
Yes, this is a true story. Had that man every used that line before? There’s no way to be sure, but he certainly did not expect me to tell him my favorite nutrient was carbohydrates. But you know what? Even though I was early in my dietetics education at the time, if I were asked the same question today, my answer would remain unchanged.
There are so many reasons why I love carbohydrates. I promise not to make this my ode to carbs, but in a world where carbohydrates bring pangs of guilt to so many people, I believe it is my duty as a registered dietitian nutritionist to share with you the truth: that you can, should and almost certainly do consume carbohydrates every day.
Carbohydrates are one of the main building blocks of foods and beverages – a macronutrient, along with fat and protein. While not present in all foods and beverages, carbs are present (even in very small amounts) in many – and that goes far beyond the bread, cereal, pasta and pastries that the term “carbs” has colloquially come to imply. Carbs are certainly the main component in these foods, but the carbohydrates category also includes fruits and vegetables, as well as sugar in all forms – from the sugar that’s naturally present in fruit and milk to the sugar you stir into your coffee.
Carbohydrates are a dietary staple for good reason. First and foremost, they’re your brain’s main source of energy. “Why oh why do I crave carbs so badly?” some of us lament. Well, it’s because your brain works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, using carbohydrates (glucose, specifically) as fuel. That’s right – your body needs carbohydrates to survive.
So What’s With All These Low-Carb Diets?
The low-carb diet trend is one that has really persisted, leaving us with a strong presence of low-carb fad diets today. Most of these claim they’ll help you slim down and stay satisfied (what everyone wants in a diet, basically), and there has even been some research to support these claims. The problem, however, is that the weight loss that some experience after taking on a low-carb diet is largely short-lived. Low-carb diets have been shown to provide about the same amount – or even less – maintained weight loss over time, compared to any other diet that limits calorie intake.
Because your body’s most critical organs need carbohydrates, cutting them out or drastically reducing your intake of them may do you more harm than good. What's important is choosing which carbs to consume. Some carbs are better choices than others, and portion size and your individual needs should play into how much you choose to eat.
Which Carbs Are The "Good Carbs"?
As mentioned above, fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates. They’re nutrient-dense and provide lots of stuff your body needs to work fluidly and reduce risk of weight problems and chronic ailments like heart disease and diabetes. Whole, fresh fruits and vegetables are almost always a great choice.
What about grain foods (the ones we think of when we think of “carbs”)? The most up-to-date dietary guidance, which takes into account decades of nutrition science research, recommends making at least half of your grains whole grains. This includes the whole-grain versions of bread and pasta, as well as whole grains like oats, quinoa and bulgar.
The rest of your grain foods can be non-whole-grain, or “refined,” but when choosing among refined grains, it’s best to keep products that are also high in sugar and fat (cakes, cookies, etc.) to a minimum. Too many of these can result in weight gain purely from overconsumption of calories, but in addition, a growing body of evidence suggests that consuming too much added sugar may have other negative health effects too, like increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic ailments.
When you look at your plate at any given meal, grain-based foods should take up about one quarter. This goes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks. Even if you’re not eating off an actual plate (if you’re snacking on the run, for example), you should strive for a similar proportion.
As for other carbohydrates, you can basically eat fruits and vegetables with reckless abandon. Ok, that’s not true, but most Americans are not getting enough of fruits and veggies, and, when you choose whole, fresh produce with minimal added sugar and fat, it’s hard to go overboard. Aim to cover at least half your plate in fruits and veggies, and strive for variety. Different types and colors provide different nutrients that your body craves.
The Bottom Line
Carbohydrates come in many forms, and some are better than others. Your body cannot function without carbs, so make wise choices and enjoy them!
Kristen Wilk, MS, RDN
Hi! My name is Kristen, and I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist. I’m a contributor to Womensforum, and I also work for Pre Brands. In this and former roles, I’ve worked with a variety of food and beverage companies. Thoughts and opinions presented here are my own.