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Carbohydrates: Friend or Foe?

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Busting common diet trends is easier than you think.

Sponsored content by UT Health, Fruit picture by Brooke Lark, Headshot courtesy of UT Health 

There was a time when fat was nutrition public enemy No. 1. Now carbohydrates seem to be the most maligned macronutrient. Diet trends and fads seem to come and go, and Americans still have a hard time losing weight. So what’s the catch? Is there something we are missing? Is there really a secret? The truth is losing weight, eating healthy and developing good lifestyle habits is less about what diet trend you choose to follow and more about your mental willpower to follow through and push yourself to maintain healthy choices in the long term. This isn’t easy, but instead of approaching eating healthy in an extreme fashion, such as cutting out carbs completely, it’s more manageable to learn what foods are healthy and how to properly proportion them.

So, what’s our take on carbohydrates? Are they entirely bad for us?

“No, carbohydrates are not bad for you,” says UT Health Austin registered dietitian Lizette Taboada. “Healthy carbohydrates are vital for good health and should be incorporated into your daily diet in appropriate portion sizes.”

Are you shocked? It seems pretty straightforward, but let’s take a closer look. First, we need to understand what carbohydrates are. Most of us think carbs include bread, sugar, candy and soda—all the bad stuff diets tell us to cut out. And you’re right. Those things go in the unhealthy carbohydrate category, but it’s a little more complex than that.

“Carbohydrates can actually be divided into two categories: natural/whole carbs and refined/processed carbs,” Taboada says.

This means not all carbohydrates are the same. I’m sure you can guess the natural/whole carbs are the healthy ones we should eat daily.

Now that we know there are different types of carbs, what are some examples of healthy versus unhealthy carbohydrates, and how do they work in the body?

“Carbohydrates are a source of energy,” Taboada says. “Natural carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits and starchy vegetables, break down into sugar and raise blood glucose slowly, giving the body energy, while processed/refined carbohydrates like sweets, soft drinks, white bread and breakfast cereals raise blood sugar rapidly. This is why you experience a short burst of energy followed by a crash shortly after.”

Taboada continues to explain consuming too many carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, can induce a rapid rise in blood glucose that can affect appetite regulation and increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Evidence suggests low-carb diets can produce favorable metabolic changes in the short term, but long-term effects on the body and weight maintenance are questionable, especially if you return to eating unhealthy after completing your diet. Instead, Taboada recommends creating small healthy diet changes that will last forever.

“Both quantity and quality of carbohydrates should be considered,” she explains. “An appropriate portion size for grains and starchy vegetables is about one fist size total per meal.”

This means if you have two types of carbs, such as brown rice and potatoes, in the same meal, it should be half a fist size of each. If you are including a fruit along with your meal, you can have a full fist size in addition to your portion of grains or vegetables.

“Despite the research, carb phobia persists,” Taboada says. “That’s unfortunate because fruits, whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables offer fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals for an optimal health.”

Registered Dietitian Lizette Taboada’sTips for Achieving Gut Health and a Healthy Weight

  • Eat carbohydrates rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber, like whole grains, fruits, legumes and starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, peas).
  • Avoid refined carbohydrates, including sweets, candy, soft drinks, sugar, white bread, pasta and breakfast cereals.
  • Eat an appropriate portion size of carbohydrates (fist size for grains/starchy vegetables and a fist size of fruit per meal).
  • Make sure at least half your grain intake comes from whole grains.
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