Carb confusion is real, and it’s something many people struggle with on a daily basis. “Carbs are evil,” is what you hear from just about everyone on the planet these days, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Carbohydrates provide fuel for the body in ways that other things don’t, and carbs are everywhere. As a result, carb confusion is likewise everywhere. Carbs are in vegetables, oats and other whole grains, fruits, beans, drinks, etc., and they come in a variety of forms. The most common form of carbs are sugars, fibers, and starches and they’re things your bodies need. Let’s do some myth-busting on that whole “carbs are evil” mindset and clearing up carb confusion along the way.
Carb Confusion is Real
Is there such a thing as healthy carbs? You bet! That’s what makes carb confusion so frustrating. The body needs carbs. Foods high in carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet, just like calcium helps build strong bones (especially for women), carbs help build strong bodies. The glucose that carbs provide are converted to energy and fuel the body, supporting both normal bodily functions as well as physical activity. But there are good, healthy sources of carbs, and there are unhealthy sources of carbs.
The healthiest sources of carbohydrates are unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains (think oats, brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat, whole rye, etc.), vegetables, fruits, and beans. Consuming these foods delivers vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a whole bunch of other phytonutrients to the body.
As we all know, unhealthier carbs abound as well, and that’s another place where carb confusion sets in. Unhealthier sources of carbs include things like white bread, sodas, and other sugary drinks, pastries, and a wealth of processed or refined foods—including your favorite fast food selections that might seem healthy at first glance, and a whole bunch of those frozen meal solutions you find in the local supermarket. Why are these unhealthy? They contain easily digested carbs (and they also likely taste good, which is what gets ya!). But these kind of carbs are “empty carbs” and don’t provide any nutritional value to the body. More importantly, these kinds of unhealthy carbs can do bad things to the body, like contributing to weight gain, and getting in the way of weight loss, and equally as important, potentially putting a body on a path to health problems like diabetes and heart disease.
Enter The Healthy Plate and The Backstory on Why It Was Created
The Healthy Eating Plate was created by nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Health Publications and was designed to address significant deficiencies in the “MyPlate” guide, created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and released in June 2011. This guide was based on the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid, and the updated 2005 version, MyPyramid, which was designed to convey what the USDA wanted to teach consumers were the elements of a healthy diet. Note emphasis, and be wary.
Unfortunately for consumers, the information released over the years by the USDA was based largely unsubstantiated evidence and, to compound matters, that body of “evidence” was rarely updated based on new scientific findings. It’s also important to note that this “information” and “nutritional guidance” was not only driven by consultants, nutrition experts, USDA staffers and scientists, it was also driven by scores of lobbyists from a number of food industries. Food industries who had a very vested interest (and billions of dollars at stake) in certain foods being included in any government-issued literature or educational materials—healthy or no. You can now probably see why I made the “be wary” statement above.
So the team at Harvard created a resource that was based on fact, and research, and called it the Healthy Eating Plate. The Healthy Eating Plate is a great source for eliminating carb confusion. The guide recommends filling most of your plate with healthy carbs, with veggies and fruits taking up about half of your plate, and whole grains filling up about another fourth of your plate. Here’s a look at what the team at Harvard recommends:
Note that protein is absolutely a part of the equation for the Harvard team and the Healthy Eating Plate, but it’s a small part, and it’s surrounded by food recommendations that contain a plethora of healthy carbs. This is a far cry from the macros that are typical in the protein obsessed, Keto-crazy diet focus that is so common today, so I’m sure there are many reading this who are shaking their heads and saying “No way, carbs are the enemy, this is not for me.” Stay with me, I’m on your side. Oh, and if you’re lactose intolerant, that presents a whole different set of challenges. Here’s an article that might be helpful on that front: How to Fix the Food Plate for the Lactose Intolerant.
Protein-Based Diets Aren’t Evil, Either
Keto diets may seem great, and they may work for many people who are focused on getting the weight off, but many experts question how beneficial this kind of diet is to the body long term. And eating a diet comprised of meat, cheese, and high in fat over the long term can present dangers that we don’t even know about yet.
I’m not saying that you should totally walk away from your love of Keto style eating, and I don’t in the slightest think I’ll convince many people to do so. But Keto diets help contribute to the problem of carb confusion, leading people to think that all carbs are bad. That’s simply not the case.
When it comes to embracing Keto style eating, if you love it, and your body feels healthy and strong, and your doctor says this is the best nutritional path to follow, go for it. For many people, however, maybe the Keto style of eating should be considered a tool. Get the weight off that you need to get off using this diet, but then do the work to transition to healthy, balanced, nutritional eating that delivers all the nutrients that the body needs naturally, instead of just a few. That includes understanding that carbs aren’t evil, and that carbohydrates and fiber are a necessary part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Keto has its place, but the body needs more than it can deliver. The body needs fiber. Studies show an increased risk for heart disease with low-fiber diets. There is also evidence to suggest that fiber in the diet may help to prevent colon cancer and promote weight control. And there’s only one way to get fiber, and that’s by way of eating plant foods—and plant foods are a source of carbs. Plants like fruits and vegetables are not only quality, healthy carbs, they are loaded with fiber.
Healthy Eating Is Work
Maybe you’ve experienced carb confusion—I know that I certainly have. This eating right business is rarely easy for most of us, especially if, like me, you love food. I love carbs (the good and the bad kind), I love protein, and I love fiber, and I work hard to balance the good with the bad. I eat a ton of vegetables and get my fair share of fruit as well. I especially focus on berries, apples, citrus, and tomatoes when it comes to fruit, and I’ve never met a vegetable I didn’t like (except for peppers, and you may have all of them). I have to work harder on grains and legumes, because those don’t naturally sound good, but I make sure to get them in. This past year, I’ve significantly reduced my intake of red meat, and found I don’t miss it one bit. It’s a work in progress, that’s for sure, and I’ll bet you’re in the same boat.
How Can You Clear Up Carb Confusion: Ask ‘Does It Grow?’
So how can you clear up carb confusion? First, know that carbs and fiber are an essential part of any healthy diet. Period.
I’m also raising teenage girls who are carb-loving machines. As a result, I find myself constantly talking with and teaching them about healthy eating versus the junk food that is so much a part of most kids’ lives. The thing I tell them to stop and ask themselves most often when it comes to food choices is this: Does it grow? If it grows, it’s good to eat. That doesn’t mean they are going to stop eating bad carbs, not by any stretch, but healthy eating habits come from knowledge. And if they’re knowledgeable about what carbs are good for them and which carbs to avoid, they’re laying a foundation for good eating decisions and a healthy lifestyle for a long time to come. As a parent, that’s what I’m striving for.
So that question: Does it grow? It’s a great question for all of us to learn to ask ourselves on the regular. If it grows, guess what? It’s also got carbs in it. Carbs are in pretty much everything that’s real food: Food that grows in the ground, and on trees, and on bushes. That’s things like potatoes, beets, melons, squashes, berries, bananas, rice, oats, beans, lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, etc.. So many amazing things make up the body of “real food” …. and they (and their carbs) are waiting to help you transition your diet into a healthy one.
The original version of this article was first published on FitFormula.