• Julia Ryan

What about "Carbs"? | Nutrition Mythbusters

Balanced is excited to bring to you our Nutrition Mythbusters series in which we debunk eight major myths about the links between diet and health! We believe that accurate, evidence-based nutrition information should be accessible to everyone. That’s why we created this educational series dispelling some of the most common and persistent misconceptions regarding healthy, balanced eating and diet-related disease. You can find the video episode of today's blog on our YouTube channel.

Carbohydrates are the primary and preferred energy source for the human body. Despite this fact, common myths about carbohydrates are that they’re universally bad and are the biggest cause of weight gain. Too many ‘carbs’ are why diet-related disease is getting worse, we’re told.


Glucose, derived from carbohydrates, is required for muscle cells, cells of the central nervous system, red blood cells, and more. Therefore, sufficient glucose levels are critical for proper functioning of the body. Without sufficient glycogen stores, the body actually breaks down muscle to obtain it. This can occur when adhering to the Keto diet. While people think they are primarily burning fat, they may actually be losing muscle.


The idea that carbohydrates are fattening is simply untrue, but commonly believed. It is important, however, to acknowledge the distinctions between different carbohydrates. It is advisable to reduce the consumption of refined grains. Refined grains, including sugary cereals, snack foods and white rice, often have high levels of added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are the foundation of plant-forward, balanced diets. Complex carbohydrates include unprocessed whole grains (such as brown rice), legumes, fruits, and vegetables. They provide innumerable nutritional and health benefits.


Whole grains are also beneficial for the gut microbiome. Whole grains, like all complex carbohydrates, contribute to a greater diversity of bacteria in the gut. This in turn protects against diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes.


Additionally, carbohydrates provide dietary fiber which is particularly beneficial for long-term health. High fiber intake is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.


Unfortunately, the 97% of Americans are highly deficient in fiber intake, with the average intake for an American adult being just 15 to 17 grams per day. The recommended fiber intake is as follows:


  • 25 g/day for women

  • 38 g/day for men


Unfortunately, and at the detriment of public health, carbohydrates have been somewhat vilified since the 20th century.


Before the mid-20th century, carbohydrates were reduced to simply an energy source, without much regard to their nutritional values. Energy derived from fat and protein was prioritized. It was recommended that carbohydrates fill the energy void following consumption of fat and protein sources (e.g. meat & milk). In reality, complex carbohydrates should make up the majority of our daily energy intake.


In the mid-1950s, the attention pivoted to sugar for its contribution to tooth decay. Finally, in the 1960s, sugar, and consequently carbohydrates as a whole, were blamed for more diet-related calamities. The idea that sugar and carbohydrates, rather than animal products, were “a major cause of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease” was promoted widely. Seemingly lost in the conversation are the distinctions between different carbohydrates.


Modern attacks on carbohydrates take the form of the popularization of fat- and protein-heavy diets that have negative health consequences, particularly for the cardiovascular system. In the end, however, the best evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that carbohydrates from whole food sources make the best foundation for a health-promoting diet.


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