Carbohydrate foods like bread, bagels, pasta

Are Carbs Bad for You?

Think about all the food rules, myths about eating, and diets you’ve heard of over the years. Are there any common threads? Do you find any links in their “philosophy?” I’ll give you a hint – it has to do with some of the simple pleasures in life like bread and pasta.

How many times have you associated dieting or watching what you eat with carbs? 

Over the decades, carbs have gotten such a bad rep and the diet industry really capitalized on it. They’ve continued to spread misinformation that directly impacts our perception of carbohydrates and our food choices. It truly became the scapegoat for everyone’s failed diet attempts. 

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to hear my clients speak about their hesitation with carbohydrates. They’ve spent so much time worrying about them and avoiding them at all cost that it can be hard to finally make peace with them. Even outside of the work with my clients, the first thing someone usually says to me when I tell them I’m a Dietitian is, “are carbs bad for you?”

The full-blown fear of carbohydrates has a chokehold on our society. This societal norm is absolute BS and gives diet culture more power. As a Dietitian, I’ve studied food and nutrition for years and can tell you that carbs are not the enemy. We’re going to breakdown the ins and outs of carbs, and hopefully giving you more insight into why they aren’t “bad.” So let’s get right into it. 

What even is a carb?

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (Fat and Protein being the other two). They are molecules called glucose. When asked to list carbs, people often go to the stereotypical sources like bread, pasta, baked goods, etc. But in fact, there’s carbs in pretty much everything! Fruit, vegetables, milk and yogurt. The pastas and breads are the ones that get the bad rep, however, and have fed into the diet culture concept that carbs are bad. Not all carbs are the exact same, and this is something that has been abused in our society! 

There’s actually three types of carbs:

  1. Sugar 
  2. Starch
  3. Fiber

Sugars are simple carbs that give us fast energy! They include the sugar found in things like candy and sweets but also the carbs found in fruit. Starch is what we call a complex carb that is found not only in grains and beans but in certain vegetables, too. Finally, fiber is another complex carb located in plant foods such as nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The carbohydrates found in things like vegetables are naturally more fibrous while those in breads don’t have the same content of fiber. Both are carbohydrates, period. 

What do they do?

  • Give us energy – Carbohydrates are the body’s #1 source of energy! It prefers to use carbs over anything else. All of our organs, whether it’s the kidneys, heart, or any in between, use carbohydrates for energy. Glucose in carbohydrates is quite literally the ONLY source of fuel for one of our most complex and active organs, the brain! Without them, the brain isn’t able to function optimally, directly impacting your cognition.
  • Preserve muscle mass – Because bodies prefer carbs for energy, if there isn’t enough coming in from the diet, the body will turn to our protein stores from muscles to break for energy. This is going to lead to a decrease in your muscle mass. By nourishing our bodies with its preference in energy, we naturally preserve that muscle mass. 
  • Regulate appetite and cravings – I mentioned that carbohydrates break down into glucose. You’ve probably heard the phrase “blood sugar” floating around. Well those blood sugars are the glucose molecules flowing throughout your body, being absorbed for energy. Without them, those blood sugars drop and we experience low energy, groginnes, irritability, etc. When we don’t get adequate amounts of carbs, our body starts releasing hormones that make you crave them. Our bodies can out smart you any day, so you’re out of luck with the intense cravings for carbs that can kick in when you aren’t eating them. By giving your body what it wants (and let’s be honest, what you want too), you avoid these dips in energy and mood levels and dodge the intense cravings. 
  • Contain important nutrients like vitamins and minerals – Carbohydrates are vessels that carry other nutrients that are important for the functioning of our body. These nutrients include vitamins such as Vitamin C and B vitamins. Some crucial minerals embedded in carbs include iron, magnesium, folic acid and potassium. So yes, carbs serve more purpose than just providing us with satisfaction and joy when eaten, they give us tons of other important nutrients that we also need!
  • Help you get fiber – As I teased earlier, getting carbohydrates in daily is going to increase your fiber intake! That’s because fiber is present in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Fiber helps maintain our blood sugar, reduce cholesterol, and support your bowel function. It swells in our stomach to keep us full and satisfied. It bulks up our waste to make for bowel movements with ease. 

Another note that is absolutely necessary to mention – you aren’t going to be addicted to sugar or carbs! This is a common myth that isn’t the case for carbs. To save you from a longer discussion on the science behind it, the research just doesn’t add up. Not only are most of the studies conducted on rats and not actual humans, researchers have yet to actually conclude what, if any, is the “addictive” component in food. Is it the sugar alone? Is it a combination of it with another food or set of circumstances? It doesn’t add up. 

If you’re feeling “out of control” with your carbohydrate or sugar intake, there’s likely something else going on that needs to be addressed. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I restricting or limiting my carbohydrate intake?
    When we restrict anything, especially a life-dependent nutrient like carbs, it creates hunger and deprivation to which our body responds to by triggering a primal drive to eat that exact thing you’re restricting. 
  • Am I leaning into these foods as a coping tool for something else going on?
    This “addiction” might be a version of a coping mechanism for something deeper that’s going on. While using food to cope can be useful for some, it can be damaging to others if that deeper rooted thing isn’t addressed and worked through.
  • Am I feeling guilt or shame about eating carbs and sugar which makes me feel like I’m addicted?
    By feeling guilty or shame around eating sugar and carbs, you may be calling it an “addiction” to bring justification to it. You don’t need to justify eating these things – it’s natural, normal, and necessary. By removing that shame around it, you’ll find that you’re not “addicted,” you just enjoy those things! 

It’s time to make peace with carbs! Long-story short, carbohydrates will not be the thing that makes you gain weight or break your journey. Cards are not the enemy here, the diet culture that continues to demonize them is. There are SO many other factors that play into our weight and size like genetics, lifestyle, race/ethnicity, etc. Carbohydrates are not going to be the sole determining factor of your weight journey, especially those that are chock full of those other nutrients we need to function daily. With all of the misunderstanding and misinformation out there, carbs got thrown into there and continue to be questioned about it’s intentions. Carbs are here to nourish our bodies and our brains. Carbs give us the basics for everyday living and functioning. Carbs are our friends.