Thursday Thoughts: Carbohydrates

It's Thursday, so you know what that means...

Thursday Thoughts

If you are new to my blog, or haven't been reading on Thursdays, this is a segment where I post my thoughts about various nutrition and health related topics, or maybe even something else if it is really an intriguing topic. Most of my current views and opinions come from experience working as a dietitian and as college instructor in nutrition courses. Most of that learning is science based or observational from the clinical setting. In general, I hate over-generalizations, so for many of the things I post, I expect there is one or two exceptions because broad sweeping generalizations are always bound to miss out on something.

Thanks to everyone for your topic ideas.  As I thought about it after the fact, I am packing now and getting ready for a big trip, and I wanted to make this post as easy for me to write as possible, so I am choosing an "easy" topic or one that I know I can make flow without too much additional research and/or thinking.  I think when I return from my travels, those topics will make for great Thursday Thoughts posts.

As for carbohydrates, this is one macronutrient that gets a lot of attention in the media, and most of that is negative.  Here are my thoughts on this often misunderstood nutrient.

1) Carbohydrates are 1 part of how we obtain energy, or calories from food.  Eliminating something we need some off means other things (fat and protein) fall out of balance and we get too much of one or the other, and possibly both.  In some cases, this may be needed, and there are reasons out there for a diet heavier in one nutrient than another, versus what we would generally recommend.  The foods that contain carbohydrates, and the carbohydrates themselves provide nutrients that the body does need.  Let's not forget that carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy, and fuels the brain.  There is a minimum value for this each day, which is the RDA of 130 grams.  Most people will need to exceed this, possibly by double, and even more depending on calorie needs.  There is no one size fits all number for carbs because it depends on a percentage of the diet and it depends on their calories needed daily.

2) Cutting out carbs will cut out more foods than you might think at first glance.  Going carb free means no fruits, veggies, whole grains, or even dairy products, which eliminates a lot of foods that provide essential nutrients, like vitamins and minerals.  Getting rid of carbs altogether means a lot of foods are eliminated.  Some people may choose a lower in carbs diet, but caution should be placed in getting rid of all of them.  This is a very restrictive diet and not really backed for a long term use for either health or weight management.  It can also get very boring, and I will point out not practical at all for a vegetarian...and we knew plant based diets have their benefits.

3) Some people may think they have lost a lot of weight from cutting out carbs, but you really need to analyze what was cut from the diet.  Cutting out carbs means no "sweets" and "junk" foods, which means a big drop in fat grams too, which means less calories from not having the added sugar, and not having as many calories from the fat.  Any reduction in calories means a reduction in weight.  You are also forced to focus on food labels, which means you are actually paying attention to things, and this vigilance results in less calories consumed.  This may be a good way to get you focused and motivated, but it is not a good way to continue for the rest of your life.  There are much better strategies out there for managing your weight.

4) Get the right kinds of carbs.  I mentioned these above...fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat/fat free dairy.  These all contain natural sugars and fiber (except the dairy which only has fiber if it is added to it).  There is a benefit to eating all of these foods, and they all fit in a healthy diet.  Just because these foods might be new, doesn't mean we can't eat them.  Our digestive systems have evolved (no, I will not be discussing evolution in detail at this time, and I know many of you may have varying thoughts, and you are entitled to this) along with the food supply.  Our lifestyles are very different, and we have changed over time, and I think mostly in response to foods we have available, otherwise we would have died off if unable to change with what suits our further development (I will end evolution talk here).  Basically, there are "good" and "worse" solutions for getting your carbohydrates.

5) Take time to learn about what is in your food.  Understand what a carbohydrate is and why we need them.  Knowledge is power and you should be in power when it comes to your own body.  Not knowing and just following what you read (possibly by unreliable sources) can cause health problems and malnutrition down the road.  Carbohydrates do have a place in the diet and it is up to you to decide how this is, but I do urge you to use science based information, and foods that fit into your culture, food preferences, and availability.  Knowing about carbohydrates and what is in your foods will make help you make informed decisions.  There are tons of very good blogs out there (RD and nutrition students/grad students/interns, and those with grad degrees in nutrition) that give this information in easy to follow articles and really break the science down well for the layperson.  This may make some of the science (this is organic chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology, and others all rolled into one) less scary, and easier to understand and see how this applies to real life.

Well, those are my thoughts on the basics of carbohydrates and why these should not be cut out from the diet.  The key is learn what is in your foods, and build a diet that works for you personally, and not rely on what others claim has worked for them.  All diets should contain a variety of foods (yes, there are some exceptions), including carbohydrates.

QUESTIONS:  What are your thoughts on carbohydrates?  What is your favorite source of carbohydrates?


Julie said...

I love this! I am always doing diet teaching with my patients and they always want to "eliminate" carbs first. Sometimes people tell me about their "diet" and I just cringe at the strategy that sounds straight out of a fad diet book which tells them "carbs are the devil." Such good info!

I love fruits, veggies, whole grain anything. In fact, I just ate oatmeal with fresh strawberries and bananas as I read this!

Chucky said...

As a diabetic, there exists a glycemic index associated with various carbohydrate-laden foods that I must take into account when selecting my meals. My target are foods with a low-glycemic index (complex carbs, "good" carbs) in lieu of those having high-glycemic index (simple carbs, "bad" carbs).

I totally agree with your blog but wanted to elaborate on other dietary considerations when one makes their selections.

Thanks for sharing your blog!

Andrea@WellnessNotes said...

My teenage son declared the other day that he wasn't eating carbs anymore. We had a long talk about what foods contained carbs, why we need them, etc., and, luckily, he revised his views a bit... :)

I eat lots of veggies, whole grains, and some fruit and dairy every day. I try to eat few simple carbs, but I still have a piece of cake once in a while! :) Cutting things out completely just doesn't work for me...

Nicole, RD said...

Obviously I agree :)

I DRILL into my student's heads all of the above. Especially the 130 gram DRI. People need to know how to argue against low-carb diets with facts!

Gina; The Candid RD said...

Great post. The more I learn about carbohydrates, however, the more I realize how addicted Americans are to them! You should read the book Good Calories, Bad Calories. It's a real eye opener. I hate to go all Adkins here, but some people really should limit their carbs, severely. Others, not so much. IT all depends on our genes. But all in all, even those people who say they don't eat a lot of carbs, they actually DO eat more than they think. ONly an RD would know that :)

Special K said...

I am a super carb a holic...I would say 70 percent of my diet involves this staple. I eat whole grain cereal for a snack, and think that if a few days go by with oatbran or oatmeal, I might be coming down with something.

I LOVE thursday are super helpful and reaffirming and so much more personal than some magazine article. Wishing you well!

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