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Fitness Reborn: The Real Truth About Carbs

COLUMN: Renowned fitness author and journalist Adam Bornstein tackles the debate surrounding carbs — and tells you how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to chowing down.
Fitness Reborn: The Real Truth About Carbs
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This post was written by Adam Bornstein, founder of Born Fitness, author of Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha. To work with Adam on online fitness and diet programs, you can apply for his coaching program. The views expressed herein are his and his alone. For more from Adam, follow him on Twitter.

Carbs make you fat.

It must be true because I read an article on “The Truth About Carbs” and it told me so. And with all the diets that go “low carb” and have success — from Atkins to Paleo — carbs have to be bad, right?

I’d agree if not for one small problem: Carbs are important. In fact, it’s very easy to argue that carbohydrates (mostly the right kind, more on that in a moment) are essential to your diet. And lumping all carbs together into one category is like saying all the Baldwin brothers are the same. (Sorry, Billy. No offense.) After all, it’s hard to call all carbs bad when vegetables are carbohydrates, and so are fruits. Maybe a child would think a diet with no fruits and veggies sounds delightful, but you know better. Those are your traditional “health foods.” So it should come as no surprise that any diet attempting to completely purge carbohydrates — or anyone suggesting all carbs are evil — needs to take a step back, cut out the dogma, and take a hard look at reality, personal preference, and make sure we’re all clear on the real rules of carbohydrates.

So in order to discovered carb reality, let’s wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

Blindly assuming that all carbs are bad — or that bread or grains will automatically make you fat — is a giant mistake. It’s the old “don’t judge a book by its cover.” When we make blanket statements like “don’t eat carbs” it only confuses the message we send to the general public. (Hey, that’s you.) Why? Because most people don’t know what qualifies as a carb. We look at food as food. So when we spread unqualified concepts it opens the window for people to try and adjust their diets in a way that makes them miserable. And that discomfort is more a byproduct of misunderstanding than anything else. It’s why most people who think carbs are bad will go out of their way to avoid certain foods — like rice or potatoes — when, in fact, both can have a place in your diet and could play a role in helping you lose weight (if that’s your goal).

So let’s stop with the nonsense. Not all carbs are bad. At the same time, certain types of carbs are not great for your body. Some people respond poorly to them, have allergies (this is when gluten sensitivity and inflammation make foods like grains and breads a common enemy), and generally find that carbs make them feel bloated and fat — especially when those carbs come from sugar, candy, or lots of processed crap. (Think of foods that are manufactured and don’t have the best nutritional profile…instant mac and cheese, anyone?)

Is my “carbs are good and bad” stance meant to confuse you? Of course not. It’s designed to draw an important dietary line in the sand: A dogmatic, black and white approach to carbs is hurting the mindset of what we can and can’t eat.

How many carbs you can eat and what you can tolerate is based on your body. I know it’s not a sexy answer, but it’s the truth. You can’t assume that high carb diets are bad. Just as you can’t assume that high protein or high fat diets are bad either.

That’s because many different types of diets work. We want a flashy one-size-fits all solution, but I’ve seen too many different diets work for every type of person to know that a broad generalization are not the solution. It’s actually the foundation of the problem. So we need to stop with the scare tactics and suggestions that might create imbalanced diets and do more harm than good. 

So How Do You Know Carbs Aren’t Really Bad?

I’m a bit of a science nerd, but I’ll be the first to admit there are many things in life we can’t explain with science. Or many things that science has yet to prove. (Or may never prove due to lack of funding, lack of interest, or just crappy studies. Hey, it happens.) However, when science does uncover some truths, it’s important they’re not ignored. And in the case of carbs, insisting that “all carbs are bad” just isn’t a fair conclusion that can be applied to everyone. And if you’re trying to build muscle, well, removing all carbs is going to make it very tough.

“The idea that carbs are the enemy is a common appeal to emotion and popular folklore rather than the full range of scientific evidence,” says Alan Aragon, MS, a nutritionist in Westlake Village, CA. The best example is a recent meta-analysis that compared carbohydrate intake ranging anywhere from 4 to 45 percent of total calories in low-carb diets, and fat content at 30 percent or lower in low fat diets [1]. Here’s what the researchers found:

  1. Low-fat diets were slightly more effective at lowering total cholesterol and LDL.
  2. Low-carb diets were more effective at increasing HDL and decreasing triglycerides
  3. Neither diet was more effective than the other at reducing bodyweight, waist girth, blood pressure, glucose, and insulin levels.

This overall lack of differential effects led the authors to conclude that both low-carb and low-fat diets are viable options for reducing weight and improving metabolic risk factors, says Aragon. One of the strengths of this analysis was its large sample size; it included 23 trials from multiple countries, and totaled 2,788 participants. Meaning, this isn’t one small snippet of truth.

What’s more, the cuisines of some of the healthiest populations in the world consist of diets that have heavy carbohydrate components. The best examples are “The Blue Zones,” says Aragon, which are known as “longevity hotspots that have the longest life expectancies and the lowest rates of chronic and degenerative diseases.” The main energy sources for all of these Blue Zones are carbohydrates. Need more evidence? The Top-10 countries in the world with the lowest obesity rates all consume a carb-dominant diet.

If Carbs Aren’t All Bad…

So where does that leave us? Are we supposed to assume that a high carb diet only makes Americans fat?

No, but we can use that to better understand and guide our eating habits. Let’s face it: We can’t discount that low carb diets have been found to be a very healthy way of eating. There’s plenty of research that indicates lower carb diets can do everything from helping with weight loss to building bodies designed to fight off disease [2]. In fact, unless trying to build muscle, I typically follow a lower carb approach. But notice I said, “lower carb” instead of “no carbs.” Because lower can mean 100 to 200 grams per day.

The more important message — and the one that will influence how you eat — is developing an understanding that while carbs are not all bad, they’re not all good either.

“Saying carbs are ‘ok’ does not mean you should shovel in bucket-loads of refined flour foods and chase them down with gallons of soda,” says Aragon. Instead, be smart about where the majority of your carbs come from. It’s always best to create a diet that’s filled with whole and minimally refined foods. Or as I say: Eat more good foods (proteins, vegetables, fruits) and less shit (candy, soda, sugar-loaded foods, and boatloads of pasta).

A healthy diet can include carbs. And a healthy diet can include some of the carbs that you might not consider healthy — whether that’s breads, grains, and rice, or even some sugary dessert every now and then. The main point is to make the majority of your diet, say 80 to 90 percent, come from the good stuff, and keep the minority to the bad. (Or avoid it altogether if that’s your preference or you know that a small taste might open the gateways to a binging episode.)

Some people will thrive on more carbs, while others will suffer. Your best bet is to play around with food options that are both healthy and work for you. This is the “sustainability diet” and while it’s not really a diet (or all that exciting), it is the best approach to dietary success. Take it from one of the best nutritionists in the world: “Your carb intake should be individualized according to your personal preference, tolerance, and athletic and aesthetic goals,” says Aragon.

Experiment and be patient. Find the right balance for your body and let that become the truth when it comes to your dietary stance on carbs and the message we need to spread.

Make it Count,

Adam

Photo: netzanette

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Works Cited +

  1. Effects of low-carbohydrate diets versus low-fat diets on metabolic risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. Hu, T., Mills, K.T., Yao, L., et al. Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Tulane University. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2012 Oct 1:176
  2. Effects of a carbohydrate-restricted diet on emerging plasma markers for cardiovascular disease. Wood, R., Volek, J., Davis, S., et al. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2006; 3: 19.

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