Carbohydrates have long been demonized as the cause of weight gain and obesity, forcing people to obsessively count carbs and count calories. However, research suggests that it is not the number of carbs that you eat but rather the source of the carbs that is more influential in your health and weight. So here is a case for carbs, and why quality always trumps quantity.
What are carbs?
Although for many people the term ‘carbs’ conjures up images of bagels, pasta, muffins, and glazed donuts, there is a lot more to carbs. Carbohydrates are defined as any type of food that is made up of sugar, starch, and fiber, and includes everything from bread and pasta to fruits and vegetables.
What are good-quality carbs?
Essentially, any form of carbohydrate that is a whole food can be considered a quality carbohydrate; this includes fruits, vegetables, root vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils. Good quality carbohydrates are unprocessed whole foods that are eaten cooked or in their natural state.
What are poor-quality carbs?
Poor-quality carbohydrates are simple; they include any form of carbohydrate that is not whole food. Poor-quality carbs are often referred to as refined carbs and are typically grain-based products and/or sources of processed sugar. Refined carbs include items such as cereals, granola bars, crackers, cookies, pastries, sodas, sweets, and treats. These forms of carbs are processed foods that, in addition to containing carbs, also contain added sugars, refined oils, additives, and preservatives.
Why Quality trumps Quantity
Although many people get excited about counting carbs or calories from carbs, the quality of the carbs that you consume is far more important than the quantity of carbs that you consume. Why? Because the type of carb that you chose (i.e. quality) has a much greater impact on how it affects the body than how much of it (i.e. quantity) you eat. (1)
Consider this, if you had the option to eat donuts or steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast, which do you think you could eat more of? I’m willing to bet you could eat multiple donuts but would struggle to eat multiple bowls of oatmeal. If you had the option to munch on a bag of chips or eat some boiled potatoes, which do you think you could eat more of? I’m willing to bet you could eat a whole bag of chips but would struggle to eat multiple boiled potatoes. And if you had the option to eat a bag of candy or eat a bag of carrots, which do you think you would finish first?
Part of the reason for this is that carbohydrates in their whole format are dense sources of fiber and nutrients, are satiating to the body, and will eventually trigger palette fatigue over time. On the contrary, refined carbohydrates are chemically engineered in laboratories by food manufacturers to be highly palatable making them incredibly easy to over-consume. Not only are refined carbs devoid of their own nutrients, but refined carbs will spike your blood sugar which will lead to increased cravings and, in turn, food intake.
The Role of Insulin
Every time that you eat a glucose-containing food (carbs) you trigger an insulin response in the body. Put simply, insulin’s role in the body is to manage the amount of glucose present in the bloodstream at one time, as glucose is the body’s primary source of energy. So, every time you eat carbs the glucose (sugar) present in the carbs raises the level of sugar in your blood, however, since you only need a certain amount of glucose in the bloodstream at one given time (i.e. you only need so much energy at one given time) your body will regulate your level of blood sugar by storing excess in the cells for a later time (AKA – as body fat).
The primary concern with refined carbs lies in the fact that they not only contain abundant amounts of glucose per bite but when repeatedly consumed insulin must constantly work to manage the constant supply of sugar to the bloodstream. Over time, insulin will get “tired” or become resistant to this influx of sugar. It is at this point where problems begin to arise; although you might be constantly ingesting carbohydrates or sugars for energy, that energy is not actually making its way to the cells (where the energy is actually needed) since insulin has become resistant to this constant influx of glucose and is no longer managing the balance of sugar in your bloodstream. Over time, this means that your body will ask for more and more energy (i.e. sugar and carb cravings) to fuel the cells given it is not all making its way into them properly.
On the contrary, high-quality whole-food carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and lentils are not concentrated forms of glucose, therefore do not spike your blood sugar, and come equipped with fiber and nutrients that actually support the body’s insulin response, not throw it out of balance. That is why a diet rich in carbs from fruit and vegetables is very different from a diet rich in carbs from crackers and pretzels.
And Don’t Forget About Leptin
In addition to insulin, leptin, insulin’s counterpart, also plays an important role in the carb conversation. Leptin is the gatekeeper of our appetite; it is stored in our fat tissues and its role is to signal to our body when we are full and tell us when we have enough energy stored. However, the more body fat you have, the more you can develop a decreased sensitivity to leptin, so if you continue to make the body produce leptin in excess the body becomes desensitized to its signal. Essentially, it becomes difficult for the body to know when to stop, so a vicious cycle of cravings and overconsumption of refined carbohydrates continues further contributing to weight gain.
The Bottom Line
While both the quality and quantity of the carbohydrates that you consume are important, quality outweighs quantity. Whole food sources of carbohydrates are not only more satiating, allowing us to consume less, but whole food sources do not cause the same damaging insulin and leptin responses that refined carbohydrates do. So, if you are trying to lose weight, stop counting your carbs and start by focusing on the right sources. Focus on whole foods; eat an abundance of vegetables, some fruit, root vegetables, legumes, and whole grain, and save refined and highly processed carbohydrates for special occasions.