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Food and Nutrition Truth Versus Fiction

Fiction: Carbs are fattening and you should avoid them. . .especially if you’re trying to lose weight.

The Truth:

We’re still hearing about carbophobia—that diehard fear of carbs and thoughts about them making fat gain easy and weight loss hard.  But that’s not the truth. Here are some facts about those carbs, hopefully some to reinforce what you already know deep down, and others that may even surprise you!

Carbohydrates are essential to good nutrition and health.  In fact, carbs are considered the ‘master fuel’ in sports nutrition and it’s no surprise since it is a primary source of energy to keep your cells and your brain fueled around the clock. Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients—nutrients that give us calories—along with protein and fat and they provide blood sugar, and depending on the type of carb, they can provide a whole lot more in terms of vitamins, mineral,s and other nutrients.

What carbs do: At 4 calories per gram, carbs are equal in providing energy per gram to protein, which may surprise you.  And they are less than half as caloric as fat, which rings in at 9 calories per gram. Carbs don’t make you fat: you can blame consuming too many calories for that. But it’s not just about the fat, this is about getting great nutritional bang for the buck if you choose the best kinds.

The Kinds of Carbs: Whole grains versus refined grains. I’m talking about choosing whole grain and whole wheat breads and pastas, brown rice, whole grain cereals, and corn (yes, corn is a grain and not a vegetable!) instead of white breads, refined flours, commercial baked goods and similar. You may be nodding your head, already knowing that whole grains are a better choice, but it may be surprising to learn that refined carbs not only lose the fiber, as many people tend to simply believe, but are stripped of up to 90% of the overall vital micronutrients that whole grains offer from folate, magnesium, and vitamin E to essential fatty acids and a number of phytochemicals and antioxidants.

Starchy vegetables and legumes (beans): Potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, and similar veggies are important complex carbohydrates that offer a broad range of nutrients, including antioxidants like carotenoids for a healthy immune system and eyes, potassium, fiber, and other nutrients. And legumes—beans from kidneys to black beans to garbanzos and everything in between—are the only food to have earned the official distinction of being both a complex carbohydrate and a protein. Fiber- and nutrient-rich and filling, beans are powerhouses of great nutrition that provide sustained energy to get you through the day.

Fruits and vegetables: Veggies give lots of nutrition and volume to the diet for very few calories.  They’re a nutritional score.  Most people know that veggies are weight-loss friendly, but did you know that they’re actually carbs?  Fruits do provide more carbohydrates and therefore more calories than most vegetables, but they also provide loads of antioxidants and other powerful plant nutrients that promote health and fight disease from a variety of angles.  Plus, I’ve never met anyone who’s gotten fat from eating too many whole fruits. Honestly, have you? Let that notion go. Like mother always said, eat your fruits and vegetables.

Sugar: All sugars from white table sugar to brown sugar, honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup are carbohydrates.  Choose more natural forms (in small amounts) remembering that there are 16-20 calories per teaspoon.

The Amount: Low in calories and low in fat—quality carbs are actually a dieter’s friend. That is, unless the portions go up, and then the calories and fat go up in step, too. It boils down to a bit of simple math when it comes to carbs really. 

Grains and starchy veggies. I find that most women need and manage their energy and their weight well with 3–4 servings (1/2–2/3 cup per serving) per day if they’re moderately active. Most moderately active men do well to stick to 4–6 total servings.  And if exercise really ramps up, this is the first place—even before protein—where servings are added. Remember, carbs are the master fuel for sports and also activity.

A fruit and/or vegetable at every meal.  One or more servings (one serving is about the size of a tennis ball) per meal.  Most experts recommend 5–9 servings a day—or 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of veggies per day on average.

Sugars. Limit the amount. With only 16 calories per teaspoon, adding a bit of sweetness to your tea or coffee is not a problem. Enjoy!  But watch out for the baked goods and other foods that have added sugars. Remember 1 teaspoon is 4 grams and there are 4 calories in each gram.

Believe in Mother Nature and what she gave us as carbohydrates through the plant foods like grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.  And when you hear about the carbs, don’t think whether, but what kind.  And remember to watch your portions and move your body and those carbs will fuel your active body and your mind for the many, many healthy decades ahead.

That’s the truth about carbs.

Wendy Bazilian is a doctor of public health, registered dietitian and freelance writer in San Diego. She is also the Nutrition Specialist at the renowned Golden Door. Dr. Wendy is author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet (Rodale, 2008). 

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