It seems as though everything becomes extreme in today’s world. From the Atkins diet to intermittent fasting, a lot of valid ideas are perverted into cult-like exclusionary fads with little to no compromise. One such trend that appears to never quite fade out entirely is the perception that carbohydrates are overwhelmingly and without differentiation “bad.”
Where does this perception originate and why has it been perpetuated over the years? The answer is not terribly simple and has more to do with changing diets and food production methods than the carbs themselves. Let’s take a moment to break down the complexities of these changes and their relation to carbohydrates.
Food Production and Consumption
The overwhelming trend over the past few decades has been a steady overall increase in caloric intake. From 1970 to 2000, for example, the average caloric intake for adults in the United States increased by 200+ calories per person. During that same time period, the percentage of calories coming from fats and proteins actually decreased.
So, what does this mean? By process of elimination, we can conclude that the increase in calorie consumption shares a correlation with an increase of carbohydrate intake. This is likely due to a few factors, including changes in food production—the addition of sugars to many products, as well as the increased popularity and accessibility of processed foods—and dietary choices made by individuals.
The Villainization of Carbs
As a result of these production and consumption changes, carbs unjustly earned a reputation for negatively contributing to a healthy diet and weight-loss efforts. The focus changed from overall caloric intake and unhealthy eating in general to carbs specifically. Whether this is due to a lack of comprehension regarding nutrition or a clever money grab by the inventors of certain fad diets, the perception of carbs was marred.
These perceptions took hold in sweeping fashion, but without important specifics regarding the macronutrient they villainized. There are many types of carbs, just as there are many types of fats and proteins. Lumping them all together in an encompassing label of “bad” simply lacks scientific backing. In fact, carbohydrates are vital in a well-rounded and healthy diet!
How Carbs Differ
Most of us are aware that carbs are integral in the body’s production of energy, but how effective a certain carb is for that particular task varies. While simplified, carbs are typically separated into two categories: complex and simple. To continue this simplification, complex carbohydrates include foods that have no been processed, such as whole fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and so on. Simple carbs, on the other hand, include sugars and starches that have been processed.
So, how do these two types of carbs differ when consumed? Again, we’ll keep it relatively simple: complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and contain more nutrients than their counterparts, which are digested quickly and could be compared to a flash in the pan—little to no worthwhile nutritional value.
Making Sense of it All
It’s fair to conclude that simple carbohydrates are not an exceptional addition to a diet. When we take this information and consider the unprecedented growth of processed foods and unchecked addition of sugars to various foods and drinks, the complete picture begins to emerge.
Our diets have changed over the past few decades due to accessibility and affordability of processed foods and sugary drinks—relatively empty calories packed full of simple carbohydrates. Because of the filler nature of these carbohydrates, it is easy to consume far more calories than it was when complex carbs were the main source of carbohydrates.
The blame is not on the carbs, then, but on the type of carbs as well as the overall increase in caloric intake the United States has experienced. You cannot gain weight without a calorie surplus, no matter where the calories come from, so let’s check ourselves and stop blaming a macronutrient!
How to Proceed
If you’re worried about weight gain or simply beginning a healthier diet, simple carbs might be the place to start. Reduce or eliminate foods with excessive added sugar, especially beverages. Instead, eat more whole foods and foods that are not highly processed and packed full of simple carbohydrates. A great first step is to replace your drinks with water, especially water that can contribute to your overall well being by containing vital vitamins and minerals. Consider it two birds with one stone!