BHealthy Blog

A Dietitian’s Take On Carbohydrates

By Kristen Shores, MS, RDN, LD and Veronica Click, RDN, LD with Baptist Health Weight and Nutrition Center.

Have you ever heard that you should eliminate carbohydrates, or “carbs,” because society tells you they are unhealthy? Do you find cutting out an entire food group from your diet difficult? STOP HERE. Let’s consult with a registered dietitian.

Registered dietitians are a reliable source of nutrition advice, offering scientifically sound and up-to-date information. They can provide clarity on nutritional topics, including the role of carbs in a balanced diet.

Why Do We Need Carbohydrates Anyway?

Carbohydrates are essential for optimal bodily function and serve as the primary energy source for the brain. They are a macronutrient that needs to be consumed in greater amounts, alongside fats and protein. During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose molecules, which are absorbed and transformed into energy by the body’s cells. Carbohydrates are present in most foods and are a fundamental food source for the brain, central nervous system, and muscles.

Here are examples of functional carbohydrate choices:

  • Whole grains such as brown rice, bulgur, oats/oatmeal, polenta, popcorn, quinoa, stone ground grits, bread, pasta, and tortillas.
  • Starchy vegetables such as acorn squash, butternut squash, green peas, parsnips, plantain, potato, pumpkin, sweet potato/yam, and corn
  • Beans and legumes such as black, kidney, pinto, and garbanzo beans
  • Whole fruits
  • Dairy products

How Many Carbs Do You Need?

Carbohydrates are vital for energy and essential bodily functions. They should make up 45-60% of daily energy intake. Including a variety of carb sources, especially fiber-rich ones, promotes healthy digestion and provides long-lasting energy. So, go ahead and have a carbohydrate with your protein and non-starchy vegetables at each meal!

Low-fiber or zero-fiber carbs like white bread, sugar, and candies can be enjoyed in moderation. Pairing them with high-protein and high-fiber foods helps slow down digestion and keep you feeling full.

Carbohydrates For Digestion

Eating natural food sources such as fruits, vegetables, and carbohydrates can provide dietary fiber, which promotes the development of beneficial bacteria in the intestines, improving gastrointestinal health and digestion. There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber, found in fruit, beans, and oats, helps retain moisture in stool and slows digestion, while insoluble fiber, found in whole grains and wheat, helps increase stool volume.

Probiotics are becoming more and more popular, but are you familiar with the term prebiotics?

Foods high in carbohydrates, such as breads, root vegetables, oats, and some fruits, provide prebiotics which feed probiotics to keep gut microbiota balanced and healthy.

Hydration and Immune Function

In order to keep our organs and muscles hydrated and able to perform for longer periods of time without becoming tired, our bodies need carbohydrates. Consuming enough carbs also helps our bodies’ immune systems, which helps to keep us healthy and prevent illnesses.

Mood, Sleep and Appetite

Consuming carbohydrates is strongly connected to the brain’s release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin plays a key role in mood enhancement, hunger regulation, and sleep/wake cycles. Having adequate serotonin helps shield against sadness and bad mood. Additionally, it promotes restful sleep and increases alertness when you’re up. It is possible to feel “satisfied” after a meal and stop eating when you are full since serotonin regulates our hunger and fullness signals. Ask yourself, how well do you recognize your hunger and fullness signals?

Myths About Carbohydrates

Some people think “low-carb diets” aid in weight loss, or that eating carbohydrates causes weight gain. These opinions are typically founded on pseudoscience with no real scientific study foundation or on nutrition science that has been toned down. While cutting back on carbohydrates will also cause you to shed some of the fluid that the organs and muscles are holding on to, you may initially lose weight quickly. Low-carb diets also tend to reduce your total energy consumption. Studies have shown that cutting back on food can result in weight reduction during the first few months of the diet, but even if you follow the plan, the weight usually returns within a year.

Additionally, There is also a misconception that eating carbohydrates after dark can make you gain weight. there is no evidence to support this idea because the body metabolizes carbohydrates the same way at any time of day.

Negative Side-Effects of Eating Too Few Carbs

  • Decreased immunity
  • Gastrointestinal distress such as constipation due to low fiber intake
  • Low-energy and fatigue
  • Mood fluctuations, difficulty focusing, a gloomy or negative attitude
  • Poor sleep
  • Inhibits sustainable weight loss efforts

In summary, eat carbohydrates!

Carbohydrates are essential for overall health and should make up the majority of daily fuel intake. They provide energy for the body and brain to function efficiently. Combining carbs with protein and fats creates a balanced intake of macronutrients for optimal health.