There are so many diet trends and fads regarding food and nutrition that it’s hard to keep up. Eggs were good, then bad, then good again. “Milk. It does a body good.” No, wait. Milk is not good. Or maybe it is. Which is it?
Today, the object of abhoration is the carbohydrate (a.k.a. “carb” or plural “carbs”) – that evil energy-giving nutrient that will (supposedly) make you fat.
The truth is, the body requires carbohydrates, just like proteins and dietary fats, in relatively large amounts for normal function and good health. All of these macro-nutrients provide energy. In fact, carbs and protein both supply the body with 4 calories per gram. Fat supplies 9 calories. What this means is that these nutrients supply you with enough fuel (calories) to burn the same amount of energy (calories) to stay alive and to be active. The difference is in how quickly the body can use the fuel you feed it.
So why are carbs getting such a bad reputation lately? Though the answer may be more complex, three particular reasons stand out.
First, it started with diets that limited carbohydrates in order to achieve weight loss. When these diets were found to work for initial weight loss, word spread that this was the “quick fix” way to eat to successfully lose weight. Notice the abundance of information you can find touting restricted-carb diets? This leads to reason number two.
People want “easy.” There are a lot of mixed messages regarding how and what to eat, causing the general population to be misinformed. This overwhelming amount of information makes that restricted-carb diet, that actually seems to work, look much more appealing and easy to follow. Just avoid or severely limit the amount of carbohydrate-containing foods you eat and all of your weight loss problems will be solved. Right? Unfortunately, no. Studies show that the weight loss achieved by limited-carb diets, as with any other “quick fix” diet, is not sustainable. Granted, you might lose initially, but often times the pounds come back once a person stops following the restricted diet. And quite often, a few extra pounds are gained as well, leaving the dieter more frustrated than they were prior to starting the restricted diet. Which brings us to reason number three.
People simply eat too much and move around too little. There needs to be a balance between energy consumed and energy burned. Not all carbohydrates lead to fat. Only the excess ones do. To be fair, the same is true for protein and dietary fat as well. Very simply put, if your body can’t use the energy consumed within a relatively short amount time, regardless of where it came from, it will store the extra energy as fat to use at a later time. If the later time never comes to use the extra energy reserves (fat), then they will stay where they are. It’s the body’s rough equivalent to storing canned goods in your pantry. If you never eat the stored goods, they will stay right there waiting for the day when you will.
So why, again, are carbs getting such a bad rap? Touching back to the topic of how quickly your body can use the different types of macro-nutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fat – the body uses carbohydrates the fastest. They are your instant energy. Every wonder why you crave them when you’re tired? Because your body knows that they are the most efficient “pick me up.” The issue arises when, instead of eating what the body needs, you over-indulge and eat more “quick energy” than necessary. There is also a difference between simple and complex carbs. A very basic distinction is that simple carbs don’t give you the immediate “full” feeling. Complex carbs do. Think about the last time you ate a bag of candy, or a donut, versus a bowl of oatmeal. Both are carbs, but you probably felt satiated a lot quicker eating the oatmeal. And your body could utilize the oatmeal better too. (This also explains (very basically) why you can eat a lot of carbs vs meat or fat. The latter two give you that full feeling sooner. Protein and fat also take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates.)
In conclusion, the smart way to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is not to punish yourself (physically or psychologically) by restricting carbohydrates (or any other macro-nutrient) in your diet. The smart way to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is to treat yourself right by eating all of the necessary macro-nutrients. Anything worth having is worth putting in the effort for. Isn’t it worth having a variety of food and fuel sources for your body to function at its optimal level of health? Put forth the effort to give your body what it needs – a diet that includes carbohydrates, protein, and dietary fat. They all serve a purpose to fuel and keep your body functioning correctly. And then make sure you get moving to use up the stored goods in the pantry.