Often when people first learn that I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist, they want to know what I eat or what I think about certain types of diets. It’s not uncommon for people to have strange ideas about what nutrition experts eat.
At a dinner party recently, someone asked me about my diet.
New acquaintance: Do you eat carbs?
Me: Yes, I eat carbs. I eat fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and others.
New acquaintance: Do you eat bread?
Me: Yes, I just ate some.
I don’t know why this conversation stunned me. People often have the wrong idea about how a dietitian eats. Actually, we eat in a lot of different ways. Some of my colleagues are vegetarian. Some are vegan. Some, like me, are omnivores. Plus there are a lot of differences even within these eating patterns.
But this notion of carbohydrates being bad is a source of a lot of harmful diet information and unhealthful eating. Here are 10 points I want to make about carbs.10 things you need to know about carbs right now!Click To Tweet
- Carbohydrates are a nutrient. Specifically, they are a macronutrient. Carbohydrates are not a food or even a type of food. They are found in food. Protein and fat are also macronutrients.
- Carbohydrates are in way too many foods to avoid them completely. Unless you’re eating only meat, pure fat and some hard cheeses, you are eating carbohydrates.
- When you severely restrict carbohydrates, you’re also limiting a lot of health-boosting foods and nutrients. Carbohydrates are in fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt, lentils, beans, tofu, whole grains and even nuts and cottage cheese. When people talk about good carbs, I think they are talking about wholesome foods like these.
- Cutting out food groups because they have carbs is unhealthful and boring. If you give up fruit or whole grains, for example, you are giving up taste, variety and nutrition. Fruits and whole grains provide carotenoids, vitamins A, C and E, folate, fiber, magnesium and more.
- Carb-rich plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes give us a host of disease-fighting phytonutrients. Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are natural plant compounds that act synergistically in the body with thousands of other phytonutrients and nutrients to boost health and shield us from disease. That’s why variety is so important. Every fruit, every vegetable, every nut, etc has a unique nutrient and phytonutrient profile. You can’t get healthy if your only fruits and vegetables are blueberries and green beans. Variety rules!
- When you look around the world at the healthiest populations, food rich in carbohydrates almost always play a central role. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains – which some people like to call good carbs – feature in healthy diets around the globe, including a Mediterranean-style diet. Eating fruits and vegetables is associated with less chronic disease, not more. Eating legumes like black beans and lentils is noted to be associated with longevity.
- Other than providing more carbohydrate than protein and fat, lollipops and lentils have little – if anything – in common. There is no reason to put them in the same category.
- Carb-containing foods to avoid are baked goods, ice cream, sugary drinks, candy and added sugars like white sugar, brown sugar, molasses and pancake syrup. It’s good to limit refined grains like white rice, white bread, pretzels and similar foods. None of these foods have to be tossed from the table completely, however. Everything really can fit – just not all at once!
- For good health and healthy aging, it’s important to eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains daily and legumes at least several times each week. Even people with diabetes (especially people with diabetes, with their high risk of heart disease and other health problems) need these health-boosting foods. The extra burden for people with diabetes is counting carbs and measuring blood sugar levels to learn how various amounts of carbohydrates affect them at various times of the day and under different situations.
- All of your foods, whether they are rich in carbs, fats or protein, should be eaten in the amounts that help you reach your health goals, which must include staving off chronic diseases. Simply cutting carbs is misguided.
What do I eat?
Just to feed your curiosity, there are very few foods that I won’t eat, whether you call them bad carbs or good carbs – which really aren’t very meaningful terms. Actually, the only foods I refuse to eat are those I suspect will cause food poisoning. Other than that, there are are a handful of foods I dislike, so I try not to eat them. And I’m not about to waste my calories on sugary drinks, Skittles and the like. But even those I don’t fear. The poison is in the dose, so a bit now and then won’t harm me. They’re not healthful. I don’t like them, and I don’t want them. But I’m not afraid of them. And if you told me that they were your favorite foods, I’d help you find ways to include small amounts in an otherwise healthful diet.
Bottom line: Eat foods with carbs and don’t feel guilty about it. Focus mainly on health-boosting, disease-fighting foods.
Check out my post on sugars to find out if they are toxic. While you’re there, download my free guide Be Sugar Savvy: 10 Smart Strategies for Sensible People.