Are Carbs The Enemy?
Updated: Feb 27
Carbohydrates have to be the most confusing nutrient.
We're told that carbs make us fat, yet in the same breath, we're told that they're nutritious and provide energy.
It's written that there are good carbs and bad carbs. But the more we talk about carbs, the more confusing they become.
The doctor advises avoiding refined carbs, otherwise known as junk food.
All I have to do is not eat potato chips and cookies, and then I'll lose weight?! Groundbreaking.
This solution isn't abating America's obesity epidemic. Americans know very well that the middle aisles of grocery stores aren't advancing their health.
At first, fat was the villain. But as we know, fat isn't the driver of disease, after all, so therefore, the blame must go on carbs. The carb conflict is a result of America's fixation with macronutrient counting.
Seems reasonable. Cut the carbs, get slim, and say hello to swimsuit season.
The problem with the carb-hating community is a preoccupation with macronutrients.
There is tremendous variation within all three macronutrients. By vilifying an entire macronutrient, one's nutritional worldview will be narrow and subject to bias.
Seeing food as either protein, fat, or carbohydrates is a simple-minded approach to nutrition.
A nectarine and a snickerdoodle are both carb bombs, but does that make them nutritionally equivalent?
Considering that carbs are addicting and cheap, they have become the cornerstone of American eating.
This does not mean that carbohydrates as a whole are metabolically sinister. Similar to the varying forms of fats and proteins, some carbs enhance health, and carbs foster disease.
I'll start with the most misunderstood issue surrounding carbs: whole grains.
Seeing the phrase "whole grains" delivers a picture of health to the mind of the unsuspecting onlooker.
This is no surprise, given that we're told by our government and healthcare providers that whole grains should be the foundation of an optimal diet.
A significant problem with this recommendation to centralize whole grains is that the definition of whole grains is unacceptably broad.
There is zero regulation on "whole grains" in packaged food.
Thus, food companies seldom use high-quality, unhybridized, unprocessed whole grains for their "whole grain" products.
Take, for example, granola. Because of its whole-grain density, granola is often associated with healthy eating.
However, store-bought granola is not a nutrient-dense food. Speaking plainly, store-bought granola intercepts health considering it's brimming with these "whole grains" that are expert insulin spikers and promoters of inflammation.
Grains are not necessarily evil. Many grains are packed with unique nutrients.
But any packaged food that says "whole grains" is not here for your health. Why? Because it's a packaged, premade food.
I'm talking about cereals, crackers, bagels, pasta, granola, and their acquaintances.
I've yet to find a packaged, premade food that is life-giving. Remember this: packaged whole grains are not wholesome.
Understanding that nutrient density will rarely come from pre-packaged food is critical.
The goal should be to eat food in its whole form.
So please don't be swayed by the next superfood drink, protein bar, or pre-packaged meals your favorite health influencer is raving about.
If we focus on making delicious foods in our kitchens, the creations will almost always be more nutritious than advertised on the internet or at the grocery store.
This does not mean that food should taste bland. On the contrary, when real and complex flavors lead us, the food will be nutrient-rich.
Carbs get a bad reputation because most carbs are indeed health deleterious. However, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater and conclude that all carbs are harmful.
This doesn't coincide with what we know about the health-enhancing effects of carb-rich foods such as fruits and honey.
For instance, a recent study demonstrated that the inclusion of eating just one apple a day for six weeks lowers inflammatory markers Interleukin–6 by 28.3% & Interleukin–17 by 11.0% and also increases plasma antioxidants by 9.6%.
No other interventions, such as limiting other foods or exercise– just eating one apple every day for six weeks. (1)
Another example is honey. A large sect of the nutrition community disapproves of honey because it raises blood sugar levels.
However, the various antioxidants found in honey happen to actually increase insulin sensitivity and thereby increase glucose uptake, suggesting that it could potentially combat insulin resistance– doing the opposite of what some criticize honey for. (2)
So to answer the question of the article's title, no, carbs are not the enemy.
Just as with protein and fat, there is tremendous variation within carbohydrates. The takeaway is this: don't think about carbs; think about quality food.
You'll bypass the damaging carbs if you reshift your thinking to prioritize wholesome, unprocessed foods over the concept of carb-counting.