We’ve been bombarded with so many extreme diets over the years it’s hard to keep track of them all. There’s been low fat, high protein, low carb, vegan, paleo, keto, raw food diets, liquid diets, grapefruit diets, cabbage soup diets! What gives?! One of the most confusing topics for people right now seems to be whether carbohydrates are good or bad. Should we avoid them? Do they cause insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, and other chronic health conditions?
I will say that one of the most important nutrition limiters to our health is blood sugar control. Consistently high and uncontrolled blood sugar does have a significant impact on our overall health. Here are some health markers impacted by blood sugar levels:
Fasting blood glucose
Concentration and focus
Digestion and gut health
Risk of chronic disease
When talking about carbs and their impact on blood sugar, the conversation can quickly become misinterpreted and has caused many people to believe that “carbs are bad”. The reality is that carbohydrates are incredibly important for overall health. However, the type, quantity, and impact on your blood sugar can either have a positive or negative effect on your health.
To start, here are some of the BENEFITS of carbohydrates:
They are the preferred fuel source for our cells, muscles, and brain
They support gut health and digestion
They help preserve lean muscle tissue
Carbohydrates provide essential vitamins & minerals
They are our main sources of protective antioxidants and phytochemicals
Now, before you go running for the bread basket I think it’s important to understand that not all carbohydrates are created equal - the amount and the quality of your carbohydrates can have a dramatic impact on your health. There’s such a wide variety of foods that fall under the “carbohydrate” umbrella. For example, a medium sweet potato and a Betty Crocker brownie both have about the same amount of carbohydrates, yet they are entirely different foods and impact the body in very different ways. Here's a list of foods that contain carbs:
Beans and lentils
Grains (oats, rice, wheat, rye, quinoa, barley, farro)
Did anything on that list surprise you? Tons of foods have carbs! So, I’ve created a "Carbohydrate Spectrum" to help give you a visual of which carbohydrate sources offer the most nutritional value (green), and which ones should be viewed as “sometimes foods” (red) in order to honor your body and support your health the best you can.
The Carbohydrate Spectrum
It's true that consuming too many overly processed and refined sources of carbohydrates can have negative consequences on our overall health. But, when we drastically reduce the amount of carbohydrates in our diet (or remove them all together) there can be some drawbacks as well.
Here’s the potential downside to too few carbs:
Added stress on the body
Constipation (due to lack of fiber)
Hormone imbalances (T3, cortisol, testosterone, menstrual irregularities)
Suppressed immune function
Impaired mood and cognitive function (like learning and memory)
Impaired muscle growth or even muscle breakdown
Adding more of the unprocessed, unrefined, whole food (as close to its natural state as possible) sources of carbohydrates can be incredibly nourishing, and benefit our health in a multitude of ways. Balancing these high-fiber carbohydrate sources (green) with adequate amounts of protein and healthy fats helps you feel fuller longer, keeps your energy up throughout the day, balances out your hormones, and boosts metabolism! You think more clearly, have less mood swings, and support your immune system and digestion.
I encourage you to read one of my previous posts where I talk more about the importance of controlling and optimizing blood sugar, and my recommendations on how to do that.
-> Check it out here: The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster
It's important to note that everyone has different needs and responds differently to various nutrition strategies. There is no one-size-fits-all approach! We all have a different genetic makeup, lifestyle, and health goals. If your relationship with carbs is complicated, I recommend adding a source of carbs at every meal starting with non-starchy vegetables and/or fresh fruit. Once you have either a veggie or fruit, then supplement with beans, starchy vegetables, or grains.
Pay attention to how you're feeling throughout the day, and listen to your body's signals that are telling you it might be time to up your daily carb intake. If you feel sluggish, low energy (even when you get enough sleep), moody, irritable, or constipated these are signs that your body isn't functioning optimally. If knowing how to listen to your body is difficult for you right now, that's ok! Learning how to tune in to your body is definitely a skill that takes time to develop. I talk about it more HERE and offer some guidance on how you can start developing a stronger sense of self-awareness.
Bottom line, strict diets aren’t the answer and ALL FOOD CAN FIT within a healthy diet. So, yes! You CAN still have carbs! It’s just a matter of quality, and balancing it out with protein and healthy fats. By enjoying a wide variety of minimally processed, nutrient-dense, whole food carbohydrate sources you’ll feel great and your body will thank you.