Carbs – Friend or Foe?

Do we actually need carbs? Or can we get by without them?


Clearly controversial, what’s the deal with carbs? Are they good or bad or somewhere in between?

Going out on a limb, I think it’s safe to say that a majority (if not all) of us love food. And not just any kind of food, but good food. Like healthy and happy, everyone’s definition of “good food” varies.

Pizza, pancakes, breads, crispy chips, chocolate, flaky biscuits, cake, perfectly cooked fries, a flavorful bowl of pasta – all widely accepted, renowned foods. Everyone can identify at least one or more of those and agree that it qualifies as “good” food, right? Well aside from being top-rated and easy to love, those, along with other popular “good” foods share another commonality: carbs.

That becomes puzzlingly problematic when the endless diets and regimens come into play – low-carb, avoid carbs after dark, keto, Paleo, and whatever the latest carb-demeaning practice is.

Does that mean you need to limit your favorite foods?

Or that you should probably cut out your comfort foods?

Especially if you’re trying to eat healthy?

Or want to look a certain way?

Do carbs make you fat or gain weight?

Should you avoid them like the plague?

Let’s start off with what a carb even is.

Carb, short for carbohydrate, is one of the three main macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates – all of which are necessary for your body to function properly and optimally.

A carbohydrate is an organic molecule composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which is where the shorthand CHO comes from. When you consume carbs, your body breaks most down into glucose (AKA blood sugar) where it’s used for ATP (energy) for your cells, tissues, and organs.

In the foods we eat and love, there’s 2 main types or categories of carbs:

  1. Simple carbohydrates are rapidly broken down, digested, and used for energy. They’re comprised of just one or two sugar molecules (monosaccharides and disaccharides), ergo the “simple” classification. Simple carbs add a sweeter flavoring to foods. Naturally, they’re found in fruit, milk, and milk products. But more often, they’re found in processed, refined foods like soda, candy, syrups, and table sugar.
  1. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down and use as energy due to their *complex* chemical structure of 3-10+ sugar molecules (oligosaccharides and polysaccharides) linked together. Since they take longer to break down, complex carbs keep you satiated and energized much longer than simple carbs. These are the carbs found in starchy, fibrous foods such as beans, peas, grains, and vegetables.

More often than not, the simple carbs found in packaged, processed foods are less nutritious and more frequently consumed than their naturally occurring counterparts (fruit and milk) and complex carbs, which could be one of the many reasons why carbs are dubbed as “bad” or claimed to “make you fat”.

But the societal and ethical ideology behind why carbs are so abhorred is a whole other can of worms and apart from the primary point in question – are carbs good or bad? If there’s countless fad diets bidding us to ditch them altogether, do we actually need carbs? Or can we get by without them?

No matter how clear the answer may be, the decision is still yours to make. If you’re on the fence, you’re more likely to be swayed in whichever direction the wind blows (and frankly, that is often towards the next new crash diet or lose weight fast gimmick). You choose whether or not carbs are necessary or even important.

What carbs do and their role within the body:

  • Primary source of energy for the body, especially during physical activity
  • Only energy source in high-intensity, anaerobic exercise
  • Provides energy for the cells in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord)
  • Prevents muscle wasting which happens when carb intake is too low to support bodily needs, the body will resort to – in the most simplistic way of putting it – pulling energy from muscle tissues, so the muscle mass built in the gym will start to dwindle
  • Crucial for muscle recovery and glycogen stores (glycogen, also known as animal starch, is the term for stored carbohydrates in humans and animals)

So what do you think? Is the verdict in or the jury still out? Or maybe you’re just wanting a clear cut answer on whether or not you should amply and freely eat carbs?

Personally, I don’t like or agree with labeling foods as “good” or “bad” as all food serves a purpose, whether it be physical benefits, mental and emotional values, or both. And such labels can inadvertently cultivate an unhealthy relationship with food. But nevertheless, I understand the greater implication that the good vs. bad question is proposing. And a two-pronged approach will answer that million dollar question: timing and choice.

When and What

You probably remember hearing “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” growing up, and there’s absolutely some truth to that. When carbohydrates are stored instead of broken down for immediate energy use, they’re stored in either lean tissues (such as muscles) or adipose tissue (such as fat). While carbs can and should be enjoyed at any time, there are 3 “prime times” where carbs are more likely to be stored in muscle tissue rather than fat tissue: breakfast, pre-workout, and post-workout or activity.

If the bulk of a person’s carb consumption is coming from simple carbs, they likely won’t feel their best or think that carbs are “good” for them – which simple carbohydrates really aren’t the most beneficial in the long run.

To reiterate, simple carbohydrates (like pre-packaged snacks, cookies, sugary drinks, processed white breads and grains) are not as nutritious or filling as complex carbs. Simple carbs can lead to rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar, cavities, feeling hungrier (which could lead to extra snacking, most likely the form of more simple carbs, creating a cycle of what feels like insatiable hunger), the increased potential risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney issues, and neuropathy, as well as weight gain. A brief side bar on the last item: if all of the energy from simple carbs aren’t utilized right away, the excess energy that’s not needed will be stored in bodily tissues, such as fat tissues, hence why the media hones in how “carbs are fattening” when in reality, they can be, as with anything in excess can be!

Whereas complex carbohydrates can support muscle recovery, improve blood cholesterol levels, increase feelings of fullness, aid in weight management and maintenance, all while providing more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than simple carbohydrates.

But that’s not to say that “better” and “good” are synonymous with “more beneficial”. Just because complex carbs are more beneficial than simple carbs doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better or superior. All foods serve a purpose; so while I don’t recommend solely eating simple carbs, I also don’t recommend eating nothing but complex carbs either.

The cliché “balance is key”

A nourishing balance is important. Hearty, complex carbs might make your body happy physiologically, but they may not always make you happy mentally and emotionally. Sometimes it’s the piece of cake layered thick with icing, fizzy soda, tray of warm cookies, or regular pizza becoming a personal pizza that you need to feel your best. Knowing when to feed your emotional and mental health is just as important as tending to your physical health.

ALL aspects of health – physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental – coexist and need to be individually supported and taken care of. So aim for both: wholesome, nutritious complex carbs a majority of the time while leaving enough room for the simple, good for the soul carbs.

Carbohydrates wouldn’t be one of the three main macronutrients if they weren’t important and vital for our overall health and well-being. We shouldn’t fear, avoid, or restrict carbs or feel pressured to eliminate any food group for that matter; especially if it brings us joy. There’s room for all foods and food groups, so long as you’re being mindful of your current state of health, timing, and choices!

If you’d like to gain a deeper understanding of carbohydrate function (specifically in the ketogenic diet) or have any lingering questions or thoughts, this blog reveals the scientific truth behind low-carb diets.

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