There are so many misconceptions and fallacies when it comes to the field of nutrition. It is no surprise why so many people are confused about what they should and should not eat. Part of the reason for this has been the condemning of carbohydrates.
It is often claimed that “carbs make you fat” and that they will spike your blood sugar or cause diabetes so you should stay away from them. Wrong!
First, let’s get something straight. Not all carbs are created equal. Eating a piece of candy, which contains sugar, will not have the same effect on the body as eating a whole piece of fruit, which also contains sugar.
The reality is that whole sources of carbohydrates, such as starches and fruits, contain other beneficial nutrients besides just sugar. Not that sugar is necessarily bad for you, it is an essential nutrient after all, but the best sources of carbohydrates will always be the whole sources.
The Problem with Animal Protein & Fat
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy that fuels our everyday activities. When people cut back on carbs, they have to increase their fat and protein intake in order to compensate for the caloric deficit. Low-carb diets are very popular these days and they are one of the main reasons why carbohydrates have been stigmatized.
While fat and protein are certainly essential and should be part of a healthy diet, they can cause many health issues when overeaten, which is much easier to do than with whole carbohydrates. One of the main issues with animal products is that they often contain too much saturated fat (Clarke, et al., 1997) and cholesterol (Weggemans, et al., 2001), which have been shown to increase LDL-cholesterol.
Animal-based foods have also been shown to increase the risk of certain types of cancer, such as red and processed meats which have been classified as colorectal carcinogens according to the World Health Organization (2015).
It should be no surprise to anyone as to why the largest manage care organization in the United States, Kaiser Permanente, stated that physicians should recommend a plant-based diet to all of their patients in order to help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity (Tuso, et al., 2013).
A Word on Fiber
One way whole carbohydrates are superior to refined carbohydrates is because starches and fruits contain fiber. While dietary fiber is considered to be a carbohydrate itself, it does not provide any calories, such as simple and complex carbohydrates.
However, dietary fiber stimulates satiation, aids digestion, lowers cholesterol levels, and improves blood glucose control (MedlinePlus, 2016). This is why it is much easier to over consume on refined carbohydrates as they do not contain as much fiber as their whole counterparts.
Dietary fiber has also been shown to reduce postprandial glucose response, have a positive influence on certain blood lipids, improve insulin sensitivity, influence the modulation of the secretion of gut hormones, and have effects on certain metabolic and inflammatory markers that are related to metabolic syndrome (Weicker, et al., 2008).
Is Fruit a Problem?
Well, what about fruit? It does not contain as much fiber as starches and contains more simple sugars, like fructose. That cannot be good for you, right?
Fruit is a whole food and comes with a ton of healthy nutrients, such as polyphenols. These polyphenols that are found in fruit have shown to improve glycemic profile, even if the total amount of carbohydrates consumed is more (Ritta, et al., 2012).
So what about fructose? Those who speak out against the negative effects of fructose are correct in that it has been associated with the formation of triglycerides and lipogenesis (Bray, 2007) as well as induce hepatic fibrosis (Kohli, et al., 2010). However, this is only the half-truth.
What many of these critics do not consider is the source of the fructose. If they did, they would realize that these negative effects arise from the consumption of industrialized fructose, such as high fructose corn syrup, and not fructose from whole fruit (Petta, et al., 2013).
Food as Medicine
As you can see, not all carbohydrates are created equal. The benefits of eating foods in their whole state does not even compare to eating refined and processed foods. Whole carbohydrates, like starches and fruits, come with many other beneficial nutrients such as fiber, and polyphenols, which help satiate people and control their blood sugar.
Carbohydrates also help provide us with energy to execute our daily activities. A vast number of people who transition to a whole foods, plant based diet and ditch the animal products experience so many health benefits from weight loss, increase energy, and even reversal of their diseased states.
Hippocrates had it right when he said, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The food we eat has a very strong influence on our health. Therefore, we need to sincerely rethink what we are eating and determine if it is either “medicine” or “poison.”
Bray, G. A. (2007). How bad is fructose? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 86(4). Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/4/895.full
Clarke, R., Frost, C., Collins, R., Appleby, P., Peto, R. (1997). Dietary lipids and blood cholesterol: quantitative meta-analysis of metabolic ward studies. The British Medical Journal, 314(7074). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2125600/
Kohli, R., Kirby, M., Xanthakos, S. A., Softic, S., Feldstein, A. E., Saxena, V., Tang, P. H., Miles, L., Miles, M.V., Balistreri, W. F., Woods, S. C., Seeley, R. J. (2010). High-fructose, medium chain trans fat diet induces liver fibrosis and elevates plasma coenzyme Q9 in a novel murine model of obesity and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. Hepatology, 52(3). Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hep.23797/abstract
MedlinePlus. (2016). Carbohydrates. Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002469.htm
Petta, S., Marchesini, G., Caracausi, L., Macaluso, F. S., Camma, C., Ciminnisi, S., Cabibi, D., Porcasi, R., Craxi, A., Marco, V. D. (2013). Industrial, not fruit fructose intake is associated with the severity of liver fibrosis in genotype 1 chronic hepatitis C patients. Journal of Hepatology, 59(6). Retrieved from http://www.journal-of-hepatology.eu/article/S0168-8278(13)00553-9/abstract
Ritta, T., Kolehmainen, M., Sarkkinen, E., Mykkanen, H., Niskanen, L. (2012). Postprandial glucose, insuline, and free fatty acid responses to sucrose consumed with blackcurrants and lingonberries in healthy women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96(3). http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/96/3/527.long
Tuso, P. J., Ismall, M. H., Ha, B. P., Bartolotto, C. (2013). National Update for Physicicans: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal, 17(2). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662288/
Weggemans, R. M., Zock, P. L., Katan, M. B. (2001). Dietary cholesterol from eggs increases the ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol in humans: a meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73(5). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11333841
Weickert, M. O., Pfeiffer, A. F. H., (2008). Metabolic Effects of Dietary Fiber Consumption and Prevention of Diabetes. The Journal of Nutrition, 138(3). Retrieved from http://jn.nutrition.org/content/138/3/439.full
World Health Organization (WHO). (2015). IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. Retrieved from https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf
About the Author
Tino holds a degree in Dietetics and is known as "Bananiac" on YouTube where he has been sharing his vegan lifestyle with the world ever since April 2012. He posts weekly videos on plant-based nutrition and fitness topics to help inspire others to live a healthy, compassionate, and sustainable lifestyle.