This is one of the most hotly debated topics in the field of nutrition.
Just as fat used to be, carbs are now accused of causing weight gain, heart disease and all sorts of other problems.
It is true that low-carb diets can be incredibly beneficial, especially for weight loss, diabetes and certain health conditions.
It is also true that most junk foods tend to have carbs (mostly refined) in them.
However, not all carb sources are created equal. Refined carbs can be harmful, but whole food sources of carbs are very healthy.
In fact, many of the world’s healthiest foods have plenty of carbs in them.
Here are five reasons why you don’t need to fear all carbs.
1. Carbs Are Not Inherently Fattening
Some sources blame carbs for obesity, because they raise insulin levels.
They claim that carbs are the primary cause of obesity due to their effects on insulin and fat storage. In other words, that carbs are uniquely fattening, regardless of total calories.
The truth is, scientific evidence overwhelmingly rejects this hypothesis.
This argument is also at odds with indigenous groups like the Massas, Kitavans and Tarahumara Indians, as well as the pre-industrialized Thai, Taiwanese and the rest of Asia during the 20th century. These groups thrived on high-carb diets.
If carbs are fattening and harmful on their own, then these populations should not have been in good health with lean bodies.
Bottom Line: Many populations have thrived eating high-carb diets and remained in excellent health. This indicates that “carbs” per se are not inherently fattening.
2. Early Humans Ate Carbs All the Time
Learning to cook was a game-changer for our early ancestors. Cooked meat provided increased protein, fat and calories.
But a flurry of new evidence indicates that carb-rich foods like root vegetables, legumes and even grains were cooked and consumed by our ancestors too. This is important, since cooking these foods makes many of them safer to eat.
Not only would cooked carbs often have been more nutritious, they may also have been more appealing to a hungry hunter-gatherer.
This theory is supported by emerging biological evidence that shows early humans began developing extra copies of the amylase gene, which helps produce the enzymes you need to digest starchy carbs.
By analysing bone DNA, researchers can see that early humans in Europe had developed extra copies of the amylase gene long before they started farming.
That’s why people today can have up to 18 amylase gene copies, indicating that we have evolved to be able to digest starches more efficiently.
Also consider that every single cell in your body runs on glucose, which is a carbohydrate sugar. Even the most fat-adapted brain requires, at the very least, 20% of its energy from carbs.
Bottom Line: Humans ate high-carb foods long before they started farming. This is supported by genetics and archaeological evidence.
3. Fibre is Important for Optimal Health, and it’s a Carbohydrate
Nutrition is rarely black and white.
But one thing that almost all experts agree on, is that eating fibre is good for your health.
Soluble fibre, in particular, is known to be good for heart health and weight management.
The thick and sticky soluble fibre found in high-carb foods like legumes, potatoes and oats helps to slow down digestion. Fibre also increases the time it takes to digest and absorb nutrients.
This leads to a longer feeling of fullness and a significantly reduced appetite. Fibre is also closely linked with important fat loss around the heart and other organs.
Interestingly, almost all dietary fibre is made of carbs, we just don’t have the enzymes to digest them.
Bottom Line: Most dietary fibre is made of carbohydrates. Soluble fibre is particularly beneficial for weight maintenance and heart health.
4. Gut Bacteria Rely On Carbs for Energy
The role that our gut bacteria have on health is a new and exciting area of science.
It is thought that the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria influences our risk of developing many lifestyle diseases, ranging from physical to psychological.
In order to grow, the “good” bacteria need carbs that they can ferment for energy.
As it turns out, soluble fibre appears to be the important gut-nourishing nutrient they feed on.
Once again, some of the best food sources of soluble fibre include legumes and oats.
Bottom Line: It is important to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria, and eating soluble fibre may play a crucial role.
5. The World’s Longest Lived Populations Eat Plenty of Carbs
The regions where people live measurably longer lives, provide us with unique insights about certain eating patterns.
The island of Okinawa in Japan has the most centenarians (people who live over the age of 100) in the world.
Their diet is very high in sweet potatoes, green vegetables and legumes. Prior to 1950, a whopping 69% of their calorie intake came from sweet potatoes alone.
Another long-living population inhabits the Greek island of Ikaria. Nearly 1 in every 3 people lives to be 90, and they eat a diet rich in legumes, potatoes and bread.
Several other regions share similar dietary traits, indicating that carbs are not causing problems for these people.
Bottom Line: Some of the world’s longest living populations eat diets with plenty of high-carb plant foods.
Consider Food as a Whole, Not Just Its Nutrients
It’s important to think about foods as a whole, and not just by their individual nutrients. This is especially true when talking about carbs.
For instance, carb-laden junk foods are not healthy. They provide no nutritional value and are today’s biggest contributors to excess calories.
It’s also important to note that low-carb diets can be an effective tool for weight loss and diabetes control, at least in the short-term.
But that doesn’t mean carbs alone make people fat and sick in the first place, nor are they the sole cause of the current state of public health.
This depends entirely on the context, and varies between individuals.
Some people do well with little carbs, others function just fine eating plenty of carbs from healthy food. Different strokes for different folks.
The main message to take away is that whole carb foods can definitely be part of a healthy diet… and enjoying some carbs occasionally is not going to kill you or make you fat.