Carbohydrates: Good or Bad?

carbsLow carb dieting is nothing new. Back in the 80’s Dr. Atkin’s brought this extreme way of eating to the limelight with his famous book “Dr. Atkin’s Diet Revolution” and then again in 2009 with his “new” version. As with most fad diet books, this was no magic answer and the nation’s obsession with weight and dieting continued. Not to get into the boring details, but this high fat high protein low carbohydrate diet mostly caused people to lose water weight (which is what happens with carbohydrate restriction). So while the scale may go down temporarily, the end result is time wasted yet again on another fad diet! Or worse, some serious health consequences.

Carbs fell off the radar as the villain for quite awhile until the “gluten free” craze began. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely people who need to eliminate gluten from their diets either because they have celiac disease or another autoimmune disorder where avoiding gluten may be helpful (although celiacs definitely need to avoid gluten at all costs, it is not yet conclusive whether avoiding gluten is helpful in other autoimmune disorders but some health care providers often recommend it). Some people may have an intolerance to gluten, which may be less serious than celiac disease (where serious intestinal damage eventually results from eating gluten over time). With an intolerance, discomfort may result which may vary from person to person from mild to more severe. In this case, avoiding it to feel better is worth it.

So besides needing to avoid gluten for medical reasons, are there any other reasons to avoid carbohydrates?

No. We NEED the high carbohydrate foods for many reasons:

1. Healthy high carb foods such as whole grains provide fiber which keeps our digestive system running smoothly.

2. Fruits and vegetables contain carbohydrates (fruits typically more than veggies) and they also provide us with vitamins, fiber and phytochemicals which may help fight cancer.

3. Dairy foods such as yogurt and milk have some carbs and they provide us with protein (especially for vegetarians who don’t eat meat), calcium and vitamin D.

4. Carbohydrates give us energy and and help maintain our glycogen stores (this is your muscle’s source of energy, so when you want to go do something, such as run or play or dance, you aren’t going to move too fast without enough carbs in your diet).

5. Some high carbohydrate foods are just plain yummy and a part of many celebrations (think birthday cake). It is important to participate in the fun things in life, as mental health and happiness are equally important as physical health.

BUT a highly refined, low fiber, high carbohydrate diet devoid of protein brings a whole different set of problems, and this may be why people still focus on it. We are talking extremes here (unfortunately, I have seen these extremes but typically in people with sensory issues, such as children or teens with autism, or extreme picky eating). What happens when a person’s diet is almost exclusively carbohydrates? Unfortunately, those at risk include:

1. People with sensory issues such as those who can’t tolerate certain textures or tastes

2. Children who were typical picky eaters when they were toddlers, whose parents resorted to catering to them (for instance, made Ramen noodles every single day because Johnny would not touch anything else). Johnny never is exposed to new tastes (such as vegetables and meats) and consequently grows up to be an adult living on Ramen noodles!

3. Vegans or vegetarians who are not educated on how to obtain a balanced diet

4. People who simply can’t afford to purchase the food that is healthy for them

5. People who eat what they were brought up to eat

There may be more however these are the categories I have personally encountered. So what are the consequences of living on mostly high carbohydrates?

1. Carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin (a good thing to maintain a normal blood sugar). However, when the pancreas is overstimulated it eventually stops working normally, This may lead to elevated blood glucose and even “prediabetes” as well as abnormal weight gain.

2. On a high carbohydrate diet devoid of protein, your appetite will not be satisfied. You will end up having to snack all day (which is irritating! and your high carb snacks never really satisfy you).

3. You will be missing out on many important nutrients. Most of the patients I see who are extremely imbalanced in their eating (eating mostly high carbohydrate and refined foods) tend to consume inadequate protein (leading to poor immunity, hair loss, fatigue, etc), inadequate iron, no fiber (leading to constipation and digestive issues), and other vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

4. Living a normal life is really hard when you can’t eat a variety of foods. Many of the teenagers I have seen who only eat Ramen noodles and chips really start to struggle in social situations.

So the answer to the question “are carbohydrates good or bad?” is not that simple. They are both good (when consumed with a balanced diet) and bad (when they are all you consume).

My advice: include whole grains and other fun carbs (such as your favorite cookies when you crave them!) but also keep trying a variety of fruits, veggies, dairy foods and protein sources. I have heard many a dietitian say “it takes 20 tries to know if you like a food”. The more exposures, the better. So don’t give up……take a bite!

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