You need carbs. Carbs are your friend. When is the last time somebody told you that? It’s funny how the diet and fitness industry goes in phases. Until the mid-2000s, low-fat and low-cholesterol diets were dogma. Doctors and academics warned us about the danger of eggs and bacon. We were told to eat oat bran. Then Paleo took off in the mid to late 2000s, then Keto in the 2010’s. Now carbs are the enemy and high-fat diets are the rage. We’ve done a 180.
But carbs have been demonized, and people are starting to prefer “low-carb” options due to a fear that carbs can make them gain weight and harm their health. I’m writing this article to make the case for carbs.
I want to add one caveat. I’m not advocating that you go out and consume a ton of processed foods, like sugary cereals, candy, white bread, and cookies. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that you emphasize whole carbs (potatoes, rice, corn, squash, beans, oats, etc) as well as more exotic types of carbs (amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa).
Reason 1: Carbs are Universal
Like marriage, pets, sex, and good eating, carbohydrates are a universal constant. Billions of people depend on carbs for nutrition. Go to Mexico, and you’re going to eat tortillas. Go south to Peru and you’ll eat potatoes. Go to Africa, and you’ll eat teff and sorghum. Go to India, and you’ll eat naan. Go to China, and you’ll eat rice. [i] Do you get the picture?
Imagine traveling the world without eating carbs! Once you travel, you’ll see how carbohydrates play a critical role in that country’s cuisine. In fact, I can’t think of a single type of cuisine in which carbs don’t play a starring role.
You don’t have to travel far to see how essential carbs are. Go to a social event, a Christmas party, or a BBQ, and you’ll see how much people love carbs. Think about “comfort foods”: mac and cheese, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc. There is a reason why they all have carbs. It’s because carbs are satisfying and make us feel better. Ingestion of carbs releases GABA and serotonin, two neurotransmitters in our brain that relax us.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should eat a bunch of processed carbs like pastries and cakes because they make us feel better in the moment. But whole grains like oats and rice can provide us adequate nutrition and make us feel better at the same time.
Reason 2: Humans are designed to eat carbs
I mentioned the billions of people who survive on carbs, but think about the millions more who voluntarily choose plant-based diets, which are typically high in carbs like cereal, bread, legumes, fruits and vegetables. This should tell us that humans are designed to eat them and lots of them.
In fact, our digestive tract, from the saliva in our mouths, all the way to the large intestine, is designed for carbohydrates. [ii] This doesn’t necessarily mean we cannot eat meat, but if carbs are so harmful, then why is our digestive system designed to process and absorb them?
Reason 3: Nutrition
I believe every food group plays a role in a healthy diet, including animal protein and dairy. But there are some nutrients that are hard to get without carbs: magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, folate, chromium, B vitamins, copper, etc.
Don’t forget fiber, which is abundant in most whole grains and vegetables. Typical recommendations to eat 25-30 grams of fiber each day are inadequate. In fact, 100 grams a day “to stay regular” and for gastrointestinal health are ideal.[iii] Fiber also plays a key role in appetite and weight management. That might be one reason why plant-based eaters have an easier time maintaining a healthy bodyweight.
Carbs are also essential for basic hormone production including human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone. Keep that in mind if you have athletic goals. [iv] You need carbs to build muscle and get stronger, especially before and after workouts
Reason 4: Cost
If you’ve ever been a student, a young professional, or a bachelor, you know that food is one of your primary expenses. What better way to keep costs down than to eat a high-carb diet? High-carb diets are cheaper than high-fat, high-protein diets. You can buy an entire bag of rice for several dollars and easily get several thousand calories. Add a cheap can of beans and you have a satisfying meal.
When I was in graduate school, I lived on rice, beans, and oats, because they were so cheap. Bananas and apples were also on my menu. The most expensive on my grocery list? Protein powder, which was almost $2 a scoop. I minimized animal protein, which is far more costly than plant-based protein.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t eat animal protein at all, although you could be healthy without it.. Many healthy people consume modest amounts of it, but some organic or grass-fed meats can be at least $10 a pound! Imagine trying to feed the world on a keto or high-protein, high-fat diet. The necessary resources would be staggering!
Reason 5: Energy
Carbohydrates are such a great source of immediate energy. Simple carbs like white rice digest fast, while others like buckwheat and oats provide sustained nutrition. Have you ever noticed that endurance athletes consume high-carb diets? [v] There is a reason why: carbs do such a good job at sustaining us! Most surveys of endurance athletes show that most consume 55-65% of their calories in the form of carbohydrates.
One complaint I hear about people on low-carb diets is how they are always tired and feel fatigued. I think the reason why is because they don’t have available carbs to burn. Carbs really are the gold standard for energy. They give you that “get-up-and-go” you need.
Reason 6: Convenience
We live in a hectic world: work, commuting, errands, kids, etc. Sitting down to a well-prepared dish isn’t always an option. This is where carbs come to the rescue. Think about how portable carbs are. As a physical therapist, I see patients in their homes, and I lack access to refrigeration and a microwave. I rely on whole-grain tortillas, whole-grain bread, baby carrots, bananas, dried fruits, bagels, and energy bars to get me through the day (as well as nuts for healthy fats). When I get home, I eat something that requires more preparation. Some meals are best served straight from the stove, not in a hot container that sits in the car.
Have I made my case? I see no reason why healthy and sane people should avoid health carbs or even high-carb diets. If you want to eat well when you travel, enjoy ethnic cuisine, be sane, have normal hormone production, run fast, lift heavier, be sane, have good digestion, regulate your appetite, and have enough energy to get through the day, then you should eat plenty of healthy carbs every day.
You should emphasize healthy carbs, including corn, squash, beans, potatoes, whole grains, and ancient grains like quinoa and amaranth. Eat those carbs.
Kevin Burciaga is a physical therapist based in Dallas, Texas and also an eating psychology coach. He helps people overcome unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders. Kevin suffered from every type of eating disorder in his 20’s and early 30’s and is on a mission to make sure nobody suffers the same problem. When he’s not working, Kevin likes to read, make videos, travel, learn, and workout.
You can find him at www.kevinburciaga.com/empoweredeating
[i] McDougall J, McDougall, M. The Starch Solution. New York: Rodale; 2013.
[iii] Murray M, Pizzarro J. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Atria; 2005.
[iv] Ryan M. Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. Boulder: Velo Press; 2012.