If you’re a carb lover, you’ve probably felt like persona non grata in the healthy eating world lately. The keto diet—notorious for limiting all forms of carbs in favor of healthy fats—has never been more popular. People are ditching their pasta and rice in favor of zoodles and cauliflower-everything. And some health experts are even out here insisting that you can (and should) live without carbs. (Have we all forgotten about our love affair with quinoa?)
But before you dip out on carbs for good, you should probably talk to registered dietitian and 80 Twenty Nutrition founder Christy Brissette, RD. Brissette likes carbs. Like, a lot. She likes them in the form of whole grain toast and almond butter for breakfast. Or as roasted potatoes on her dinner plate (either white or sweet, depending on her mood). Or even as fruit like mango topped with Greek yogurt (aka carbs on carbs).
Give up carbs? Never! Especially because Brissette says they’re actually good for you. Gasp.
Not all carbs are created equal
“Carbs have gotten a bad rap because when people picture carbs, they think of white bread, pastries, and other processed, nutrient-void foods linked with causing weight gain,” Brissette says. “But a lot of carb-rich foods are actually packed with other nutrients.” The big ones: fiber, vitamins like vitamin B and C, minerals like magnesium, and in the case of fruit, antioxidants. “So if you avoid carbs all together, you’re going to miss out on nutrients that are actually good for you,” she says.
To properly appreciate why carbohydrates are important, you have to know the difference between simple carbs and complex carbs. Brissette explains that simple carbs are absorbed quickly in the body—leading to blood sugar spikes and subsequent crashes—and are often found in not-so-great-for-you foods and drinks like cake and soda. (Although they show up in less-obvious places like white rice and pasta, too.) Complex carbs, meanwhile, are found in foods like whole grains, yogurt, beans, and fruits and veggies. They’re absorbed by the body more slowly and thus have less of a hit on your blood sugar, all while providing those above-mentioned nutrients your body needs.
“All of those foods are part of a healthy diet,” Brissette says. “Yogurt is a core source of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. And whole grains give you B vitamins and antioxidants. With your fruit and vegetables, you’re getting antioxidants and phytonutrients. So if you avoid carbs completely, you’re going to miss out on all those great benefits.”
But Brissette says even simple carbs have a place in a healthy diet. “I just don’t think restriction works long-term,” she says. “If a client comes to me and says she loves pasta, so she better stop eating it because she’s scared of eating too much and gaining weight, I don’t tell her to cut pasta out all together.” Instead, she says to be mindful of the portion size. “One cup, or a fist-sized amount of carbohydrates, is healthy.” So instead of eating two or three cups of cooked spaghetti, Brissette says stick to one cup and round up the rest of your meal with zucchini noodles or other veggies. You’re still eating pasta, but getting the most out of other foods, too.
The healthiest people in the world eat carbs
Sure keto is great and all—and truly does work for a lot of people—but here’s some, er, food for thought: Cultures where carbs are part of a well-rounded diet are best known for long-term health. Exhibit A: blue zones like Okinawa, Japan, Ikaria, Greece, and Sardina, Italy, where living to over 100 is completely normal—as are eating carbs. “Diets like the Mediterranean diet, which is a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats, has been proven over time to be good for heart health and longevity,” Brissette says.
“We know the eating pattern of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fat has proven to be healthy long-term.” —Christy Brissette, R.D.
And Brissette says we just don’t know enough about how eating super low-carb plays out yet: “Low-carb diets, like keto, are relatively new and haven’t been studied as long. We don’t quite know the effects of eating this way long-term.” Meanwhile, a 2018 study found that a moderate carbohydrate intake (as in 50 to 55 percent of calories came from carbs) was associated with a lower mortality rate as opposed to a super-high or a super-low carbohydrate intake.
“We know the eating pattern of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fat has proven to be healthy long-term,” Brissette says. “But we don’t know how low-carb, high-protein, high-fat plays out.”
Carbs fuel your workouts
When it comes to exercise fuel, you might think protein is your BFF. But you shouldn’t forget about carbs either, says Brissette. “If you do high-intensity workouts like CrossFit, running, or cycling, carbs can help boost your performance,” she says. Unlike protein and healthy fats that are stored in the body, carbohydrates are more readily available—aka they digest quickly and work their way into the blood stream faster for an immediate surge of energy. “That’s why during half-marathons and marathons, you see runners having goos or sports drinks with carbohydrates; they need that quick burst of energy,” she says.
Post-workout, she says carbs can help you recover the energy you lost. Getting carbs into your bloodstream will energize you faster after an intense sweat session than a meal with just fats and protein, because again, they digest more quickly than those other macronutrients. If you skip the carbs, your body is going to depend solely on the protein that’s stored in your body for energy, taking it away from the important work of repairing and building tired muscles.
But here’s where good portion control comes in again. A serving the size of your fist, Brissette explains, balanced with protein and healthy fats, will give your body what it needs to recover. Give your body too many carbs (yes, even the “good” complex kind) and you’ll venture into “undoing” your workout. So instead of downing a post-spin muffin, go for a piece of whole-grain toast with nut butter and banana or Greek yogurt with nuts and fruit to get that perfect mix of fats, protein, and carbs.
Carbs literally make you happier
Is there any feeling quite as magical as digging into a bowl full of mac and cheese, or taking a bite of avocado toast? Thank carbohydrates for that. “Carbs also make us happier—and not just because they’re delicious, but they actually have a chemical reaction because they boost your brain’s release of serotonin,” Brissette says. (Serotonin is the chemical in the brain that helps you feel calm and satisfied.)
And while no one can argue with the happiness-boosting powers of a chocolate chip cookie, Brissette stresses that it’s important to pick complex carbs low on the glycemic index, otherwise the whole mood-lifting effect they bring will backfire. “They cause a blood sugar spike, so your mood will be elevated, but then you’ll crash later, which will lead to feeling cranky, tired, and craving more of these foods,” Brissette says. “But carbs that are low on the glycemic index—like fruit, beans, legumes, and even pasta—are a slower burn and actually help balance your mood.” (FYI: Most simple carbs are higher on the glycemic index, but this isn’t true for all of them.)
Her other tip for eating for happiness: balance out the simple- and low-glycemic carbs (hello, potatoes) with protein and healthy fats so they are absorbed into the body slower, which helps stabilize blood sugar and mood. You’ll feel great, sans that pesky crash (and subsequent mood flop) later on.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to love carbs—you just have to know which types deserve your attention. “You can absolutely eat carbs while still seeing weight loss results or accomplish whatever your health goals are,” Brissette says. Now, go make yourself a big old slice of avocado toast.
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