Why it's okay to eat carbs

By Hope Warshaw

Question: Can we eat carbs at every meal?

The more critical issue is the quality of carbohydrate-containing foods we eat. Photo / Getty
The more critical issue is the quality of carbohydrate-containing foods we eat. Photo / Getty

Answer: In brief, absolutely yes, but questioning this notion is understandable in our current era of fearmongering about foods - processed meats one week, potatoes and corn the next.

Let's get straight to the facts.

Think of foods as packages of nutrients with varying amounts of the three calorie-containing nutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat. For example: In their natural form, fruits and vegetables contain mainly carbohydrates with a bit of protein and nearly no fat. Legumes and fat-free milk contain mainly carbohydrates and some protein.

There are three types of carbohydrates in foods: starches, sugars and dietary fiber. Foods that contain carbohydrates fall into two main groups.

More-healthful sources: fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and low- or no-fat dairy foods.


Less healthful sources: refined grains (most pizza crust, most bagels, muffins and pastries), sugary drinks and sweets.

Carbohydrates become the body's primary energy source, glucose, once it's digested. In addition to energy, healthful sources of carbohydrates offer myriad vitamins and minerals, several which are characterised as called "shortfall nutrients" - those we don't eat enough of. On the list: vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, magnesium and fiber.

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Regarding weight control, numerous studies conducted over the past decade or so show that low-carbohydrate weight-loss plans aren't more effective for weight loss, especially when the studies follow people long-term.

The more critical issue is the quality of carbohydrate-containing foods we eat. Yes, we have a quality-control problem! People generally are heavy-handed with those less healthful sources of carbohydrates.

And, even worse, we eat too few servings of more-healthful sources of carbohydrates.

Questions do arise from time to time about whether all healthful sources of carbohydrates impact the body the same. A recent study using the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's large observational database showed that, over a period of 24 years, people who reported eating more starchy vegetables tended to gain slightly more weight.

So, should you give up starchy vegetables? "I hate to see the shaming of potatoes, peas and corn. We've got a long way to go before we meet daily vegetable recommendations. Focus on upping all types of vegetables, even the starchy varieties," Janet Helm, a registered dietitian/nutritionist and author of the blog Nutrition Unplugged, told me in an e-mail.

A smart eating plan

There are four main quality-control tactics you can take:

- Reduce added sugars.

- Limit refined grains, especially those with added sugars, saturated fats and sodium.

- Eat more fruits and veggies.

- Make at least half of all grains-based foods whole grains.

In summary, yes, you can eat carbohydrate-containing foods at every meal, but, (isn't there always a "but"?) as with all foods, practice portion control. I spend my allotted calories on nutrient-packed foods of carbohydrates - such as the sweet potatoes I smell roasting now.

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Warshaw, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books including "Eat Out Eat Well: The Guide to Eating Healthy in Any Restaurant," and the blog EatHealthyLiveWell.

- Washington Post

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