The Truth about Carbs

Back when low-fat diets were all the rage, whole grains and fruits were seen as a staple in any healthy diet. Now that the winds of diet trends have shifted, people are panicking over the dangers of carbs. So which is it? Are carbs good or bad for you?

Carbohydrates are one of three main macronutrients that your body needs to live, along with protein and fats. The reason why carbs get a bad reputation is because of a misconception that all sugars are bad for you, which is untrue.

Your body breaks down most complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, absorbs these sugars into the bloodstream and burns what it needs for energy. Any leftover carbohydrates turns into body fat to be used as a reserve if blood sugar becomes low. It’s impossible to have a 100% sugar- or carb-free diet. For example, your brain needs carbs to function no matter what.

However, there is a difference between carbs from whole foods (like fruit or bread) and carbs from added sugars. Carbs from whole foods come along with dietary fiber as well as protein or fat. These other components slow down the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream, increase satiety to keep you full for a longer period of time, and provide your body with much-needed micronutrients as well. Carbs that come from added sugar, also known as caloric sweeteners, do not have these same nutritional benefits; they are what nutritionists call empty calories.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines For Americans suggests shifting from refined to whole-grain versions of commonly consumed foods – such as from white to 100% whole wheat breads, white to whole grain pasta, and white to brown rice. Between 45 and 65% of your total calories should come from carbohydrates, which works out to between 225 and 325 grams, if you eat 2,000 calories daily. Yet, there are medical conditions that require special consideration when it comes to carbohydrates. People with diabetes might eat a low-glycemic diet, which focuses on limiting carbs that are absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, causing sugar spikes in those who can’t produce insulin to control it. Even in these cases, carbohydrates are a vital part of any healthy diet. You just need to be conscious of where they come from, and how they impact your metabolism.

Found in nearly all complex foods — even red meat — carbs are most abundant in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dairy. One-third of a medium avocado (50 g), has 4 grams of carbohydrates per serving (3 of which come from fiber), are one of the few fruits that are low in carbohydrates while also contributing good fats. Why naturally good fats? Because the body needs some dietary fat in moderation to help with absorption of nutrients. Good fats do not raise LDL “bad” cholesterol levels. Healthy avocados contain 6 g of naturally good fats.

You can boost your fiber intake and help slow down the absorption of sugar from grains or other fruits by adding an avocado to your daily meal plan. Not sure how to have an avocado that’s ripe for every day of the week? Check out our handy “how-to” avo tips page, where you’ll find several helpful videos, including a guide to shopping for ripe avocados — all you need to do is check the color of the avocado’s skin and press gently with your thumb to see if the avocado yields a bit. And if your supermarket doesn’t have any ripe avocados available, don’t worry! In this video about how to ripen avocados faster, you’ll learn the paper bag trick: Place your unripe avocado in a paper bag with a banana and leave it to ripen for up to four days.

If you’re concerned about carbohydrates in your diet or you just want to learn more about this important macronutrient, be sure to talk with your doctor and ask for more information.

By Barbara Ruhs, MD, RDN August 12, 2017

An avid avocado-eater and guacamole-lover, Barb is the Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist for Avocados From Mexico and former sports nutritionist for Harvard University. Her philosophy on food is simple: Enjoy what you eat, prepare food with love, and add avocados to everything! 

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