[UPDATE: This story was originally published on May 22.]
Ah, the C word — carbs. Our love/hate relationship with all things carbohydrate can be traced far beyond Dr. Atkins and his vendetta against grain. On the one side, carbohydrates do a body good — they are crucial for giving us energy and getting us raring to go. “Our body breaks them down and turns them into sugar, or glucose, and then uses that, not only for immediate energy that is free flowing in our blood (hence why it elevates our blood sugar levels), but also for future use, where it’s stored in our muscles and liver (that's where the idea of carbo-loading before a race comes into play),” explains Amy Shapiro, R.D., founder of Real Nutrition NYC.
According to Shapiro, we need carbs, not just for energy, but also because our brain functions on sugar. “When we are carb-deprived, our body starts to burn fat to use for energy — the whole basis for the anti-carb Atkins diet — but our brain doesn’t run on fat. It requires some type of glucose or sugar to function,” she says. Cut out carbs completely and that’s exactly why you not only feel sluggish, blah, and grumpy, but so does your brain. Not fun.
Unless you live with an all-vegetables-all-the-time mantra, you probably know the main carb players — mostly grains like cereal, bread, and pasta, but also fruits, veggies, and even milk, candy, and sweets. The difference between whole foods and packaged versions, says Shapiro, is that you get more of a nutritional bang with the whole versions, not just empty carb mayhem. Example: A banana has about 1/2 gram of fiber and 60 calories, whereas a cup of berries has about 8 grams of fiber and only 65 calories — but both have the same amount of carbs per serving, meaning either is better than say, a bag of pretzels, which offers nada in terms of vitamins, minerals, or fiber.
So carbs are good then, yes? Sadly, it's not that simple: The very aspects of carbs that make them amazing also give them a bad rap. “All carbs are going to break down into sugar,” says Shapiro. “The difference is that unrefined carbs and whole grains have more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than the refined (a.k.a. simple carbs) kinds.” And why should you care about that? “Complex carbs — like whole grains — contain higher levels of fiber, so they take longer to break down and don’t spike your blood sugar as quickly as those that don’t have a lot of fiber, therefore your insulin levels aren’t off the charts,” she says. “Your body takes longer to digest them, so then the sugar is more evenly distributed in your bloodstream.” It’s this steady sugar drip (compared to a skyrocketing surge) that can make — or break — what you see on the scale. “It’s the quick spike, followed by a crash, that causes you to reach for more sugar for an instant energy boost,” says Shapiro.
Think about what happens when you down a bag of gummy bears: “They give you fast energy because they are simple carbs,” says Shapiro. And simple carbs are bad carbs, because they pull you into a vicious carb-sugar-cycle and when this happens, your body has higher insulin levels, which causes you to store and keep fat more easily. Studies even show that carbs, by way of sugar, can be as addictive as cocaine. “Sugar stimulates the same area of the brain associated with drug and alcohol addiction, as it creates a dopamine-like sensation," says Shapiro. "And so, when the levels drop, you crave more.”
It's not just about what kind of carbs or how much of them you eat: Most experts say the earlier in the day you eat your carbs (both complex and simple) the more likely it will be used for what it was intended: energy. Eat them before you go to bed, and you run the risk that they will instead be stored by the body as fat.
So, we should just drop the carbs from our diet...right? Not so fast: Some experts — and research — suggests that long-term excessive carb cutting could lead to health concerns down the road. A review in the journal PLOS ONE says that extreme low-carb diets over time could actually increase chance of death by nearly 30 percent. We're sorry, what now? The reasoning is that if you decrease carbs dramatically, you also (by default) limit levels of fiber, as well as fruit and all the vitamins and minerals and other good stuff that go with them, often eating more animal-based protein and saturated fats in the process.
The bottom line: As much as we wish there was a blanket statement that could tell us whether carbs are here for good or evil, sadly, it's a bit more complicated than that. Your body needs energy in order to function, and carbs are great at producing both long-term and short-term energy. But, eat too many, or the wrong kind and you'll wind up feeling groggy, weak, and gaining excess pounds.
Like with anything in life, eating healthy and monitoring your carb-lem is truly about striking the right balance. In this case, you've still got to amp up your intake of leafy greens and veggies when you drop the baguette, pasta, rice, potatoes (and on and on) to be sure you still reach a well-rounded (and nutritionally dense) diet.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all carb requirement, Shapiro suggests eating vegetables and fruits throughout the day to get plenty of the nutrients, fiber, and carbohydrates your body needs. When it comes to packaged foods, read the label. Whole wheat bread should have at least three grams of fiber per slice and say 100% whole wheat or whole grain as the first ingredient; cereal should have about five grams of fiber per serving and less than eight grams of sugar. Do yourself a favor and ditch the totally empty snacks, like pretzels, cookies, and cakes, which have zero fiber. “I suggest my clients have about 40 percent of their calorie intake from complex carbs,” she says. “And while that might sound like a lot — and sure, the less you eat of them, the more quickly you’ll lose weight — if you focus on the good kinds and portion sizes, they are good for you and are absolutely part of a healthy diet.”