“Is butter a carb?”
Even “Mean Girls” character Regina George isn’t quite sure about the truths of carbohydrates.
So I’m here to tell you the facts. What exactly is a carbohydrate, what do they do, and ultimately, are low-carbohydrate diets healthy?
To begin, there are three main food sources that fuel our bodies: lipids (fat), protein and carbohydrates.
Carbs are present to some degree in almost every food item such as bread, fruits, vegetables, baked goods, beans, dairy and sugar. The only food sources that don’t contain carbs are pure meat products, butter, margarine and oils.
Carbs are important to several functions of the body.
Once eaten, carbohydrates are used mainly for brain function and are the body’s main source of fuel for the first 20-30 minutes of exercise.
One common misconception about carbohydrates is that they make you gain weight.
Although, consuming the recommended amount of carbs in a day, as well as eating the correct types of carbohydrates, will not lead to weight gain.
The idea of a low carb diet first became popular around 2000-2003 when the Atkins diet gained attention.
Individuals on this diet must adhere to strict dietary measures, including an introduction stage in which no more than 10 grams of carbs are allowed to be consumed in a day while eating as much fat and protein as desired.
This might sound appealing to some, but you’d be surprised at what foods must be eliminated including milk, most fruits and vegetables, salad dressings and all baked goods.
The science to this diet is carbohydrates have a direct effect on an individual’s blood sugar levels, and when those blood sugar levels are low by not eating carbs, signals are sent through the body when it is low on carbohydrates.
In a series of reactions, fat is released from cells and then turned into a type of fuel that your body can use in place of carbohydrates.
The weight loss seen in popular diets such as Atkins is due to this reaction; however the weight loss is also largely due to the fact that there are very few food options on these diets.
Because of these restrictions, individuals on these diets generally consume too few calories in a day.
Short term effects of the diet are both positive and negative. Rapid weight loss occurs, which is mostly fluid weight at the beginning of the diet.
In addition, mood swings, bad breath, headaches and weakness are also common short-term effects. If you are loyal to the diet, long-term effects have been shown to be mostly negative.
Risk for cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, osteoporosis and kidney damage have all been found to increase.
Carbohydrates are not bad for our health.
However, when people are eating three servings of potato chips and multiple helpings of pasta, of course weight gain is going to occur. It is easy to overindulge in certain carbohydrate rich foods, and this is where the problem starts.
Carbohydrates are found in very nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Without those foods in your diet you are missing out on very important nutrients. Moderation and staying within your daily caloric intake is key to not gaining weight, not cutting out carbs.
So carbohydrates are delicious, nutritious and necessary for bodily function.
Increasing the amount of fibrous carbs in your diet, while at the same time not exceeding daily caloric needs, will ultimately help prevent unwanted weight gain.
Revised for accuracy by Amanda Newell, RD, Bradley Dietetic Internship Director and Assistant Professor in Family and Consumer Sciences.