Nutrition Myth: Carbs are Bad for you

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Continuing our series of Nutrition Myths that need to be put to bed, this week we are going to take a look at the idea/misconception that “Carbs are bad for you?”

For decades, we were told that fat was the enemy - it was bad for our health, made us fat and needed to be heavily restricted. Since the turn of the new millenium, however, a new scapegoat has emerged - carbohydrates and, specifically, insulin. You know, our main dietary source of energy…

So the question we are going to ask and answer is: Are Carbs really bad? Before explaining the principles and science behind this, I am going to assure you that, quite simply: No, not at all. One of the reason that carbs were considered bad for our health was down to something called the glycemic index, or ‘GI’ for short. Foods with a higher GI would be deemed unhealthy and to be avoided, and foods with a lower GI were considered ‘ok’. The GI table encourages us to eat foods that don’t increase our blood sugars rapidly (low GI foods), and that eating these types of carbs reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes.

Let’s note, then, that ice cream is technically a ‘Low GI’ food and mangos are a ‘High GI’ food - so if you focus on GI alone then you would be better off eating ice cream than a fresh piece of fruit. However, we all know that a mango is far more nutritious than ice cream, with far more micronutrients and nutritional value than ice cream (unfortunately). So, ‘Low GI’ does not necessarily mean ‘healthier’. Furthermore, research on low GI diets has shown modest to no improvements (even for diabetics), and has not been proven to perform any better than other dietary approaches.

We also have the claim that obesity is caused by carbs, and the insulin response they evoke. However, this is not well supported with evidence, as explained in the article, The Top 19 Nutrition myths of 2019: 

« In 2017, a meta-analysis of 32 controlled feeding studies was published. Some of those studies were metabolic ward studies and some were free-living studies, but in each case, meals were provided by the researchers, who wished to ensure that each diet would provide specific amounts of calories and nutrients (within each study, the diets were equal in calories and protein but not in fat and carbs). So what were the results? These studies help us understand the mechanism of weight loss, more so than a diets real-world effectiveness. Low-fat diets resulted in greater fat loss (by an average of 16 grams per day) and greater energy expenditure (by an average of 26 Calories per day). This would give low-fat diets a fat-loss advantage, though one “so small as to be physiologically meaningless”. » 1 (Hull, 2019)

Even now, studies are being performed that show low carb diets to be no more efficient in terms of weight loss than high carb diets. Now, this is not to say one can not cut down on their carb intake, as it can be an effective method to create a calorie deficit. However, if cutting carbs is an ineffective option for you (you struggle to stick to a low-carb diet, it makes you feel bad or eat worse), then remember that it is not the only (or necessarily best) option. If you wish to lose weight, the most important thing is to ensure you are consistently in a calorie deficit - this could be achieved by reducing your carb intake, your fat intake or even a bit of both!

The bottom line is that as long as you are eating within your calorie allowance, there is nothing wrong with eating Carbohydrates.