For many people who want to lose weight, one of the first things they try to do is go ‘low-carb.’ The idea that bread + pasta make us fat is treated as common knowledge, but the truth is that carbs are the number one things you can eat for health and weight loss.
First it’s important to understand what a carb is. Most people think carbs are just pasta and bread, but they actually include a much broader range of food.
A carbohydrate is a macronutrient, just like fat + protein. Carbohydrates are large molecules made of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, which can also be referred to as ‘saccharides,’ coming from 'saccharum' sugar in Latin.
There are both simple and complex carbs. The most simple carb is called a monosaccharide (mono=1 → 1 sugar). Monosaccharides are the building blocks for more complex carbs, each named for the number of monosaccharide molecules they contain- disaccharides (2) , oligosaccharides (3-9), and polysaccharides (10+).
Monosaccharides and disaccharides are considered simple carbs and are quickly digested by the body.
Examples of monosaccharides are glucose + fructose. Glucose is the most simple unit of carbohydrates and can’t be broken down any further in the body. It is the body’s preferred energy source and the only energy source for the brain.
An example of a disaccharide is table sugar or sucrose, made from glucose + fructose. Sucrose is found in soda, candy, cakes and other refined sweets. All these products add a lot of calories to your daily intake without actually adding any nutritional value. You can end up filling up on foods with no nutritional benefit to your body and find yourself hungry an hour later still craving sugary, processed foods. Frequently consuming these sweets also may prevent you from eating healthier, more nutrient dense foods throughout the day. Fruits are also disaccharides, but their fiber and nutrient content help buffer the quick absorption of glucose into the body.
Simple carbs will give an immediate energy boost through this influx of glucose into the system. This will cause a spike in blood sugar, followed by a release of insulin, a hormone that helps metabolize & store glucose, and a subsequent blood sugar crash. This crash makes the body feel tired and desperate for energy, leading to more cravings + in many cases overeating.
On the other hand, complex carbs (all fruits and vegetables, plus starches like potatoes) take time for the body to break down so blood sugar levels remain stable and the body stays satiated for hours after eating. Plant-based carbs are the best thing you can eat to fuel your body, maintain energy levels, and ensure you’re eating a wide range of nutrients. All plant foods contain carbs, so they play a big role in a plant based diet. Many people struggle when they try to eat plant-based because they don’t realize the importance of eating high quality carbs throughout the day and end up hungry and fatigued.
To make sure you’re eating enough of the right type of carbs, the majority of your diet (by volume, not calories) should be fruits and vegetables, with servings of whole grains like quinoa, oats, brown rice eaten throughout the day. When you do feel hungry, try eating a plant-based carb before reaching for a tempting snack. Pairing fruits (especially sweet fruits like banana) with complex carbs also helps to maintain blood sugar levels. For example adding lots of leafy greens to your smoothie, or eating oatmeal with fruit for breakfast.
WHOLE VS. REFINED GRAINS
There are also whole and refined grains. Grains like wheat and rice make up the foods we typically consider carbs, so this is an important distinction. Whole means the grains are in their natural form- for example, brown rice is a whole grain because the grain of rice is eaten as it’s grown and harvested. White rice is a refined grain is made by removing the hard outer shell from the rice grain. This creates a softer texture and helps the food keep longer, but it also strips away all the vital nutrients (like fiber) that make grains good for you. Basically, refined grains come from the same source as whole carbs, but have been stripped of many their nutritional benefits. This doesn’t mean white pasta or white rice is 100% bad- it can still help you fill up and contains some nutritional benefit, but it must be eaten in moderation or with complex carbs & whole grains to stay balanced.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So to answer our question- some carbs do make you fat. Simple + refined carbs send blood sugar + hormone levels up and down, leading to energy crashes, cravings, and overconsumption of unhealthy foods. However, all plant foods are also carbs and are the absolute best foods we can be fueling our bodies with. The trick is filling up on the good carbs to keep energy, hunger and hormone levels in check so we can enjoy all our favorite foods in a way that keeps us feeling good.