Carbs are Essential Nutrients

One of the most common pieces of nutrition misinformation that comes up with clients is the idea of carbs as “bad,” that they cause weight gain, or that they are “unhealthy.” 

Diet culture’s manipulation of real, actual science really gets under my skin! I’m angry when adults are fed these lies, but I’m really angry when my teenage clients are struggling with food because they’ve been dealt this load of BS. It takes some real, dedicated work to unlearn the untruths the diet industry, irresponsible influencers, and even clinicians have spread. 

Here’s the REAL deal with carbohydrates, aka carbs: 

  • Carbs are one of 6 essential nutrients that us humans must get in order to survive and thrive. An essential nutrient is one that the body does not make and thus, we must get from food.

  • Carbs contain B vitamins, which are essential for energy production pathways in the body.

  • Carbs help us make neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which plays a role in mood regulation.

  • There are simple and complex carbs. This is simply a way that they are classified based on their chemistry, not on whether they are good or bad. 

  • Simple carbs are either monosaccharides (single sugars) or disaccharides (2 sugars bonded together). Monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Of these, we only eat fructose, which is predominant in fruits. Glucose and galactose are not found freely in most foods.  Disaccharides include lactose (milk sugar), sucrose (table sugar), and maltose (germinating seeds).

  • Complex carbs are those longer in structure, with many glucose sugars connected together (aka polysaccharides). Food sources include pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, tortillas, etc. Both white AND whole grain breads and pastas are complex carbs. Both white and sweet potatoes are complex carbs. Sweet Potatoes just happen to have more beta-carotene, a micronutrient. 

  • There is nothing inherently better or worse about simple versus complex carbs - they are just different in structure and thus, in the way the body breaks them down. The ultimate goal for the digestion of any carb is to break it down into glucose, which will be absorbed into our bloodstream. Glucose is blood sugar, a necessary fuel for all the cells in our body and it is the preferred fuel source for our brain. 

  • About 50% or more of our food intake should be coming from carb sources. 

  • When we eat carbs regularly and in adequate amounts, our body stores extra as glycogen in our muscles and liver. It is important that we have glycogen stored so that we can keep our blood sugar regulated in times where we are using it up quickly (exercise) or we are not eating (during sleep or in between meals). 

  • When the body breaks down glycogen, it releases water in this process. This causes people on “low carb diets” to think they are losing body weight with carb restriction. This is not body weight - this is water weight. When carbs are consumed again, the glycogen is once again stored (with water) and body weight returns to usual. This is not gaining weight - this is restoring the body to where it needs to be - with glycogen stores in place. 

  • If we don’t eat enough carbs to support blood sugar regulation and to feed the brain, our body will make glucose by breaking down our muscle tissues. In addition, the body will also make ketones in it’s attempt to find a fuel source to stay alive. 

  • Restricting carbs overall will leave us nutritionally, physically, and mentally depleted. It can lead to low energy, constipation, irritability, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, muscle loss, low blood sugar, and a disordered relationship with food. Carb restriction can lead to intense cravings for carbs. These intense cravings are a result of our brain again attempting to help us get the foods and nutrients we need, not a lack of willpower on our part.

What have you heard about carbs that needs some clearing up?