Debunking carbohydrate myths

For The Baltimore Sun

Nutritionists and dietitians from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly provide a guest post. The latest is from Devon Baer.

Eating healthy can feel like a challenge, especially when it comes to carbohydrates. The headlines change from day to day; one day they are healthy, the next they aren’t. With so much information out there, it can be hard to decipher what is fact versus fiction. Here are five common myths surrounding carbohydrates and the truth behind them.

Carbs make you gain weight. Carbohydrates are part of a healthy diet. Weight gain is not due to carbs themselves, but from over consumption of large portions of any type of food. Aim to eat complex, whole grains instead of refined grains. Whole grains are less processed and contain more fiber, which is key to maintaining a healthy weight. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting at least half of your grains from whole grain sources, such as 100% whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice, and whole grain pasta. Limit consumption of refined grains, such as chips, crackers, white bread and pastries. Weight loss is best achieved by limiting overall calories, consuming whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables.

Fruit is high in sugar. Fruit contains carbohydrates in the form of natural sugar, which is much different than added sugars found in a lot of processed foods. Added sugars are what contribute to weight gain and increase the risk for chronic diseases. According to The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugars account for over 13% of the average person’s daily calories. They are most commonly found in food sources such as sodas, juice, snacks, and sweets. The recommendation is to limit added sugars to less than 10% of total daily caloric intake. Fruit is important as part of a healthy diet. Fruits contain fiber, which helps with weight control and digestive health, as well as many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Carbs shouldn’t be eaten at night. All carbohydrates are processed by your body the same way, no matter what time of day it is. There is no evidence to support that eating carbohydrates at night will promote unwanted weight gain. Be sure to choose whole grains whenever possible and monitor portion sizes.

Low carb diets are the best way to lose weight. There is no evidence to support that following a low carb diet is the most effective weight loss strategy. If carbohydrates are very limited, weight loss likely is a result from calorie restriction and loss of water weight, not from the decrease in carbs themselves. This diet is also difficult to sustain long-term and weight gain will likely occur once carbohydrates are re-introduced into your diet. Carbohydrates are also the only fuel source for our brain. Severely restricting carbs can have a negative impact on health as the body will switch to a state of ketosis (when your body burns fat as fuel instead of glucose) which can lead to dehydration and a chemical imbalance in your blood, causing your blood to become too acidic.

The Glycemic Index is a good tool to determine if a carbohydrate food is healthy or not. The Glycemic Index is a ranking on a scale of 1-100 of various carbohydrate foods based on how they affect blood sugar (glucose) levels compared with a serving of pure glucose. In theory, a low ranking, which is less than 55, is a slower digesting carbohydrate and has less of an effect on blood sugar. A higher ranking carbohydrate food is more quickly digested and may cause more significant fluctuations in blood sugar levels. The Glycemic Index, however, does not provide the entire picture of how a food will affect blood sugar. How much you eat and what other carbohydrate foods you eat with it also has an effect on sugar levels. The Glycemic Index also does not reflect the overall nutrient value of a food. Some unhealthy foods have a low glycemic index while healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, can have a higher ranking. Carrots, for example, have almost the same ranking as chocolate peanut candies, however carrots are clearly a healthier option in terms of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals they provide.

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet. Choosing whole grains, fruits, and beans are great ways to meet fiber, vitamin and mineral needs and maintain a healthy weight.

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